PHILADELPHIA, PA. 12/6/2016 – The Villanova Wildcats took the floor as the #1 team in the nation. Interestingly it would be in a city series game at the Palestra. Would the La Salle Explorers have some Big Five upset magic? Well, yes and no. They could not pull off the monumental upset, but made it a game. Villanova found a way to grind out an 89 – 79 victory at the Palestra, their 17th consecutive city win.
“We talk about it, we respect it,” said Villanova Coach Jay Wright about the value of experience in a Big Five game. “We take them around the building to remind them of the history, remind them of the tradition, remind them of what went on here. They know. Josh (Hart), Kris (Jenkins), they played a lot of these games, and Jalen (Brunson) grew up around here. He knows. That makes a difference.”
The Wildcats were led by sophomore guard Jalen Brunson who scored a career-high 26 points shooting 10 for 17 from the floor, 2 of 3 from distance while handing out 3 assists. He turned the ball over only one time.
“I played to what the defense gave me,” said Brunson. “Coach said to catch and shoot, and make plays. I was feeling it tonight and the shots were falling. My teammates were finding me.”
The issue was very much in doubt with 16 minutes to play and the Explorers trailing 44 – 42. The Wildcats went on a 9 – 0 run over the next four minutes to take some semblance of control. The highlight was a dunk by guard Donte DiVincenzo and capped by a Kris Jenkins three-pointer.
The defense kicked in for Villanova as they held their opponents to 6 points over the next 7 minutes to go in front 59 – 48.
Still, La Salle would not go away. A string of 2 straight points brought the Explorers to within 65 – 58 with just under six minutes on the clock. Brunson answered with back to back jumpers to extend the lead back to double digits.
Again, La Salle stayed in the contest cutting the deficit to 79 – 75 with 1:04 to play on layup by sophomore guard Pookie Powell, who also had a career-best 27 points as he made 10 of his 17 field goal attempts.
“I was just trying to help my team,” Powell said about his scoring breakout. “Coach said he wanted me to be aggressive in the game, get to the basket, and take my shot.”
The Wildcats would close it out on break-aways and making four free throws to the end.
For Villanova senior guard Josh Hart had 21 points and 8 rebounds. Sophomore forward Mikal Bridges scored 16 points.
Forward B.J. Johnson had 3 points and 8 rebounds. Guard Jordan Price was limited to 9 points, half of his season average, but he dished out a season-high 6 assists.
“I thought Jordan Price with 6 assists 1 turnovers, the mark of a really good player is doing what your team needs. It was one of Price’s best games since I’ve been here.”
The Wildcats improve to 9 – 0 on the season and prepare for Notre Dame. The Explorers are 4 – 3 and have Georgetown next.
What really mattered tonight was the building had the intensity of an old time Big Five game. Two teams going at one another, a crowd that was into the game in a nationally televised contest. And it was in doubt until the last minute.
“We were awfully close,” Giannini said.
Written By: Glenn Papazian