Normally before his team’s first game at the Palestra in a certain year, Jay Wright takes his players on a tour of the storied building.
The goal: To remind them of the history, the importance and the tradition. And also what happens here.
After Tuesday’s game against La Salle, Wright regretted not playing tour guide last week when the Wildcats played Penn.
Turns out he picked the right time to remind sophomore Jalen Brunson what the Palestra is all about and how things never typically go as planned once the ball is in the air.
Brunson, whose dad endured plenty of Big 5 battles while playing at Temple, poured in a career-high 26 points to help No. 1 Villanova fend off a feisty La Salle team, 89-79 (see Instant Replay).
With Kris Jenkins’ shot not falling, and with the Explorers making everything difficult for the Wildcats, Wright, on multiple occasions, had to go to his “ace in the hole.”
“You know, at any point when you need to get a bucket, he can go get one for you,” Wright said. “That’s kind of what we did tonight.”
Brunson scored 14 of his 26 in the second half. He shot 10 for 17 from the floor on the night, including 2 of 3 from deep, and made all four of his attempts from the free throw line.
“Coach always says [to] be aggressive,” Brunson said. “Be ready to catch and shoot, ready to make plays. I was just feeling it tonight. It’s a credit to my teammates for finding me.”
He found them, too.
With La Salle hanging close all game, Villanova used a crucial 9-0 run to finally get some separation. In that stretch, Brunson hit Donte DiVincenzo with a backdoor, alley-oop pass that gave Villanova a 48-42 lead.
Back-to-back three-pointers by Eric Paschall and Jenkins put Villanova ahead by 11, 53-42, with 12:03 to go.
The run came during a five-minute, 23-second La Salle FG drought.
But La Salle, after a 57.1 percent shooting performance had the Explorers down just four at the half, roared back late behind a career-high 27 points from Pookie Powell.
Powell’s layup with 1:55 left got La Salle within five, 75-70. But Brunson responded with a tough finish through traffic.
A three-pointer from La Salle’s Jordan Price made it 77-73 with 1:19 left.
But Villanova was able to connect on two lengthy inbounds passes, one to Mikal Bridges, who scored 16 points on the night, and one to Josh Hart (21 points), to lead to easy points down the other end. And Brunson hit free throws down the stretch to preserve the win.
“A couple breakdowns, a couple things didn’t bounce our way, some missed free throws, and of course [Villanova’s] effort is extraordinary,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “We worked hard but they got a few more loose balls, a few more offensive rebounds and they just deserve credit for being relentless, the way they are all the time.”
The thought, however unlikely it seemed before tip-off, probably lingered in the minds of most inside the Palestra longer than they expected it to.
For long stretches of the game, La Salle had Villanova out of sorts. Wright credited that to La Salle’s talent. Some of it could also just be chalked up to another city series game at the Palestra — of which Villanova has now rattled off 17 consecutive wins.
“We’re not surprised at all,” Wright said. “I think we’re a little surprised we couldn’t guard them better. But we were not surprised at their effort, their talent. … They are as talented one-on-one offensively as we are. We have just played together longer.
“Some nights the other team has a little bit better plan. I think John had a little bit better plan for us than I did for them. Sometimes things just don’t go your way and you have to find a way to grind it out.
“Our veterans here, and I count Jalen as one because he’s an old soul, did a great job down the stretch.”
An old soul who perhaps still benefited from Wright’s tour.
“He plays like a Philly guard,” Wright said. “His dad, even though his dad’s from upstate New York, his dad’s a Philly guy. He knew everything. He’d seen it before.
“That’s valuable for us. It was valuable for us last year in our run, having a freshman that really didn’t think the game like a freshman or play like a freshman.”