JayVaughn Pinkston celebrates a basket in the second half of Villanova's 98-68 rout over St. Joe's at Hagan Arena. (AP)
Villanova’s first trip to face St. Joe’s on Hawk Hill back in 2011’s annual Holy War was far from a success for the Wildcats.
Villanova was hammered in a 16-point loss and looked like a team that might as well have been playing in a different country, forget its own city.
The ‘Cats made themselves much more comfortable this time around at Hagan Arena.
The 14th-ranked Wildcats erupted after halftime to shake off the crowd and an early barrage from the Hawks on their way to a 98-68 victory to remain unbeaten on Saturday night (see Instant Replay).
“You come to play in here, it’s like nowhere else. It’s going to be crazy,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “So to be able to come into this environment and play like that really tells us a lot about our team. It takes a lot of character and mental toughness.”
The Wildcats (9-0, 2-0 Big 5) played with plenty of poise on the way to notching their fifth win in their last six games against the Hawks (4-4, 0-2 Big 5).
Villanova completely blew open a four-point halftime lead by outscoring St. Joe’s, 59-33, in the second half. The Wildcats also shot 48.5 percent from the field and a blistering 56.3 percent from three-point range after intermission.
“We made every shot,” Wright said. “We actually prepare to live with not making this many shots. That second half was crazy.”
“We’re playing good basketball because we’re sticking to what we do,” said Villanova guard James Bell, who had a huge double-double with 25 points and 14 rebounds. “We’re defending, we’re rebounding. We’re getting what we want out of doing what we do. It’s very enjoyable to do it the right way.”
Things were headed south for Villanova in the early going. St. Joe’s made four of its first seven three-pointers and took a seven-point lead with 5:21 remaining in the first half when freshman DeAndre Bembry (17 points) connected on a jumper to send the crowd into overdrive.
That’s when the Wildcats got back to their initial plan of pounding the ball inside. With Halil Kanacevic on the bench in foul trouble, ‘Nova was able to rip off a 7-0 run in under a minute to knot the game at 30-30.
“I’m a physical player, so I don’t know with these new rules. I got to do a better job of adjusting, I guess,” Kanacevic said. “But it’s a part of my game. At this level, I guess they want to clean it up a lot and not let it be as physical as it was. … I guess I just have to change my game to be less physical. Less bumping. I guess you just can’t really touch anybody.
“It taught me I got to fix it. The rules aren’t going to change because of me, so I got to fix it.”
Wright knew it was key for Villanova to survive that storm.
“That was a big part of the game. I thought when Kanacevic went out, as everybody knows, he’s a very, very difficult guy to contain. He went out and [Bell] was in foul trouble, too. Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins came in and those guys really did a good job. I thought that was what really turned it. Kanacevic was out, those guys came in and those guys stepped it up. We actually went to another level with those guys in.
“That was big because it gave us some separation. You come in this environment, you’re down at halftime, they’re fired up, the fans are crazy. It’s a little different coming out the second half."
Instead, the Wildcats took a 39-35 edge into halftime and carried that momentum into the second frame. They put together an 8-0 burst immediately out of intermission and scored 17 of the first 20 points in the second half.
JayVaughn Pinkston, who scored a game-high 27 points, got going in the paint. That opened up the perimeter for Bell and the rest of the Wildcats, as they drilled nine three-pointers in the second half to put the game away.
“It was an onslaught,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “You’re over there thinking maybe a change in zone. We tried to press and we got fool’s gold on the first play and then we got lit up on it.
“We just gave up 59 points [in the second half] in our own building. There’s not free agency. We’re not trading our guys and I wouldn’t want to trade my guys. But we have to look at them and say this was a benchmark. Creighton was a benchmark. LSU was a benchmark. And we didn’t reach that level.”
“We just played horrible. We played horrible,” Kanacevic said. “We let them dictate the pace. They out-toughed us. We didn’t run our stuff. We got out of character. They did everything they wanted to do and we didn’t. It’s a lot on us and they played well, so we got a lot of work to do.”
Perhaps Villanova outsmarted SJU a little bit, too.
“This is one of my best passing teams and basketball I.Q. teams,” Wright said. “This is really our best basketball I.Q. team we’ve had.
“We’re doing the same things. It just looks a lot better.”