Villanova's Wright really loves Big East tourney

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Villanova's Wright really loves Big East tourney

NEW YORK – Jay Wright loves the Big East tournament. Really loves it. You won’t believe how much he loves it.

Really, you won’t.

“Winning this to me … we’ve never won, but winning this to me, because this is where I’m from, the East, is almost as important as going to the Final 4,” Wright said.

Umm … Jay?

“I know I’ll get in trouble for that, but it’s the truth,” Wright said. “I just love what it stands for. Everybody from the Northeast being in New York for this tournament. …

“The Big East tournament is one of the greatest basketball tournaments in the country.”

Seems like crazy talk. But Wright is trying to get across the point that he sees the Big East tournament as an important, fun, exciting few days in New York, not just a meaningless exercise that does little except cement a team’s seeding in the NCAA tournament.

Villanova opens play in the Big East tournament at noon Thursday at Madison Square Garden against Seton Hall, a 51-50 winner over Butler Wednesday night. Villanova beat Seton Hall by 16 and 17 points this year.

“This time of year is always fun, because you get a new start,” Wright said. “When you’re having a bad year and you get to this tournament, it’s not about your season, it’s about, ‘We’re going to go play in a three-day tournament and that’s fun.’ And when you have a good team it’s even more fun.”

Wright has one of his best teams ever this year. Villanova, 28-3 and ranked No. 3 in the country, is the top seed in the Big East tournament for the first time since 1997.

The conference has undergone monumental changes, losing Syracuse, UConn, Pitt and several other big-time programs and adding Creighton -- which handed the Wildcats their only two conference losses -- along with Xavier and Butler.

Villanova last won the Big East tourney in 1995. The Wildcats haven’t even made the championship game since 2004. They’re 2-5 in their last seven conference tourney games.

Although conventional wisdom has Villanova meeting No. 14 Creighton Saturday night in the title game, there are several other formidable teams in the 10-team tournament.

Providence, Xavier and St. John’s have 20 wins each and are NCAA bubble teams. They need wins in New York more than Villanova and Creighton.

“I think this tournament is going to be pretty wide open,” Wright said. “The chance of us getting to the final is going to be tough, the chance of Creighton getting to the final is tough.

“I’ve heard people talking about that, but there’s a lot of really good teams in between.”

Clearly, the new Big East conference isn’t as powerful as the old Big East, but Wright said the new conference is strong in its own way, presenting different kinds of challenges for Villanova.

Wright points to the conference’s No. 4 composite RPI, even without Pitt, UConn, Syracuse, etc.

“This was just as difficult a league in a different way,” Wright said. “Going to Creighton … Creighton was just a style we’ve never really played against. Going at Butler and at Xavier were really different environments that we hadn’t seen and different styles of play.

“It was a challenging year, it was just different. Like when we would go at Louisville or at Connecticut, we were used to that kind of play. We were built to play against that. We struggled with Butler at Butler, we won at overtime.

“It’s just a different basketball philosophy, and they play a different style. They play very cerebral, close-to-the-vest, they keep you in a close game. It was challenging in a different way.

“Playing everybody twice was really cool, but there’s a new challenge to that. By the end of the year, we all knew each other really well. I think the fans knew the teams really well.”

Jalen Brunson 'plays like a Philly guard' in helping No. 1 Villanova hold off La Salle

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Jalen Brunson 'plays like a Philly guard' in helping No. 1 Villanova hold off La Salle

BOX SCORE

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.”

Instant Replay: No. 1 Villanova 89, La Salle 79

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Instant Replay: No. 1 Villanova 89, La Salle 79

BOX SCORE

The thought, however unlikely it seemed before tip-off, probably lingered in the minds of most in the Palestra Tuesday night.

Newly-crowned No. 1 Villanova looked beatable in a “road” game against a cross-city opponent, La Salle.

A streak of 16 consecutive city series wins was on the line. And surely that No. 1 ranking would disappear next week with a loss.

But like many of the 16 previous games, Villanova finally wore down its opponent. At least enough to hold on for a win.

Behind a career-high 26 points from Jalen Brunson, 21 from Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges’ 16, Villanova earned an 89-79 win over an Explorers team that quite simply refused to go away.

La Salle, which trailed just 40-36 at halftime, got a career-high 27 from Pookie Powell, who made three three-pointers to keep the Explorers close.

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 Bridges and one to Hart, to lead to easy points down the other end to help preserve a win.

Turning point
In a game that needed one to determine a winner, Villanova used a 9-0 run (which started with the Wildcats up, 44-42) in less than 2½ minutes early in the second half to finally create some separation. Separation the Wildcats would need down the stretch.

In the middle of the run, 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 Kris Jenkins put Villanova ahead by 11, 53-42, with 12:03 to go and the Wildcats never looked back. Their lead never shrunk below four the rest of the night.

The run came during a five-minute, 23-second La Salle FG drought.

Inside the box score
• La Salle shot 57.1 percent (16 for 28) from the floor in the first half to keep the game close in what was one of Villanova’s worst defensive halfs of the young season.

• Villanova entered Tuesday’s game with 117 assists on 222 makes (53 percent) this year. In Tuesday’s first half, Villanova got just five assists on 16 makes from the floor. The Wildcats got their offensive rhythm going in the second half, recording 10 assists on 18 made baskets.

• Price (18.5 ppg entering Tuesday) was held to single digits (nine points) for just the fourth time over the last two seasons.

• Paschall tied a season high with seven rebounds. 

• Villanova won the turnover battle, 11-6, and shot 13 for 16 from the free throw line.

History
In the 66th meeting between the Philly schools, Villanova improved its record to 39-27 all-time against La Salle. 

Jay Wright now owns a 14-2 record against the Explorers.

In Palestra history: Villanova became the first No. 1 team to play at the Palestra since North Carolina defeated Penn, 106-71, Dec. 4, 2007.

Up next
Villanova has off until Saturday, when the Wildcats travel to Newark, New Jersey, to take on No. 23 Notre Dame at noon.

The Explorers play Saturday (2 p.m.) in Miami against Georgetown at the Hoophall Miami Invitational.