James Bell drives past Sam Mills on Sunday in Villanova's convincing victory, which improved the Wildcats to 10-0, their best start since 2005-06. (AP)
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Villanova is 10-0, having routed La Salle 73-52 Sunday afternoon on the Main Line (see Instant Replay). But forgive Jay Wright if he is not exactly ready to pass out the party hats and noisemakers.
“You can start this way, and if you don’t keep getting better, you can slip,” the Wildcats’ coach said. “And when you slip, you can’t necessarily get it back.”
He admitted that the reverse is also possible – that a team can continue to improve. But being a coach, he is wary of backsliding, and well aware of how long a season can be.
“It’s a journey,” he said.
Certainly the Wildcats, ranked 10th by the Associated Press and 14th by USA Today, appear well equipped for it. La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini said Villanova is “infinitely better” than it was at the end of last season, that it is readily apparent that each Wildcat has made strides, strength- and skill-wise, during the off-season. (He also said his own team has “regressed,” for a variety of unspecified reasons.)
Villanova has also added freshmen Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, who abutted Darrun Hilliard’s 21-point outing Sunday with 13 and 11 points, respectively, off the bench.
In all, the Villanova subs outscored La Salle’s reserves, 29-15, rendering meaningless the fact that the Wildcats’ top two scorers, JayVaughn Pinkston and James Bell, finished with respective point totals of seven and three points, each a season low.
The ‘Cats are 10-0 for the first time since 2005-06. They are 3-0 in the Big 5, and Sunday’s game was the closest of the three games. They smacked St. Joe’s by 30 and whipped Penn by 23.
“You don’t expect this,” Wright said. “Sometimes our guys not being familiar with all this history is a good thing. Sometimes. Usually, it bites us in the butt. I just think our guys look at La Salle as a team that went to the Sweet 16 last year, a really good team, and that’s their next game.”
Hilliard, a junior who played at Bethlehem Liberty, said he knew nothing about the city series before he arrived on campus. He added, unconvincingly, that it would be “a great accomplishment” to win the Big Five. He also said the 10-0 start is “pretty cool.”
But clearly Villanova has bigger fish to fry.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Hilliard said. “We’ve got a lot of room to get better. We don’t want to settle. We want to stay humble and hungry.”
Jerrell Wright scored 20 points to pace La Salle (5-5), which saw a two-game winning streak come to an end. The Explorers held a 17-15 lead midway through the first half, before Hart sparked a pivotal 12-2 run by scoring five points, giving the Wildcats a lead at 27-19 that they would never relinquish.
Such production is nothing new for Hart. He came in averaging eight points in over 21 minutes a night, and had cracked double figures on two previous occasions. As he said, Jay Wright “always relies on my energy.”
And while coming off the bench is something new for him – he called it “one of the biggest challenges” of his first season – he has plenty of support.
“The guys, the coaching staff, everyone’s behind you,” he said.
Villanova later built a 10-point lead, before La Salle reeled off the half’s last six to make it a 38-34 game at the break.
But the Wildcats opened the second half with a 9-1 flurry, with Pinkston contributing five points and Hilliard four, and then ran away and hid. After La Salle’s guards beat them repeatedly off the dribble in the first half to set up Jerrell Wright for chippies – all but two of his points came before intermission – the Wildcats hunkered down in the halfcourt, with telling effect.
La Salle shot just 28.6 percent from the floor and committed 11 of its 17 turnovers while being outscored 35-18 in the second half.
“What happened in the first half was, we had to get used to playing someone smaller and quicker than us,” Jay Wright said. “We were struggling with that. … I thought in the second half we kind of got used to [it], almost like going against a pitcher that’s going 100 miles an hour. In your second and third at-bat, you get used to it.”
In all, the Explorers, already the Atlantic 10’s worst shooting team, shot 38.8 percent. Tyrone Garland, their leading scorer (16.3 ppg), finished with seven points on 2 for 12 shooting. Tyreek Duren, their second-leading scorer (13.6 ppg), finished with four points on 2 for 6 shooting.
As for Villanova, they look nowhere near finished.
“They’re really good,” Giannini said, “and they can all shoot. … They’re big and strong and quick to the ball. And they’re really hungry.”
Over the course of a long, hard journey, that could count for a lot.