Villanova had been away from competition for 10 days before hosting DePaul in its Big East Conference opener Wednesday night, and showed the effects of it for a long stretch against a Blue Demons team determined to end a 16-game losing streak to the Wildcats.
The Cats trailed by 14 points in the first half and by 11 in the second before grabbing their first lead with just under eight minutes to play, and held on for a 73-68 victory at Finneran Pavilion.
Villanova coach Jay Wright conceded that his team might have had a little bit of rust since its last game on Dec. 22, but he didn’t want to use that as an excuse.
“We had time to prepare," he said. "They had to travel. They were on the road. So those are the kind of things we don’t accept. It could happen but you’ve got to overcome it.”
The Wildcats (10-4, 1-0 Big East) fell behind 30-16 in the opening 10 minutes of the game before chipping into the deficit and trailing by just 38-34 at halftime. DePaul (8-5, 0-2) ran off the first seven points of the second half and re-established a double-digit margin at 45-34.
Villanova didn’t take its first lead of the game until scoring nine consecutive points in a two-minute span to grab a 60-56 lead with 7 minutes to play. Phil Booth’s three-point basket gave his team that first lead and Saddiq Bey ended the run with a driving scoop.
The Cats later extended the lead to six, 69-63, on Booth’s three-ball with 3:57 remaining but they never hit another field goal. Eric Paschall, who scored 24 points, hit two free throws to make it 71-66 with 2:23 to play but Eli Cain hit a layup to make it a three-point game.
A missed shot by Bey gave DePaul a chance to tie at the end but Max Strus missed a three-point attempt and Booth sealed the victory with a pair of free throws.
“Eric started getting hot and hitting shots,” Wright said. “We don’t want to rely on that. We want to be able to get stops with our defense and we couldn’t. We really had trouble stopping them. Little things like getting to Strus and Cain getting downhill, those things we didn’t take care of.”
The Blue Demons shot 52.8 percent for the game and outrebounded the Wildcats 36-24, but they committed 18 turnovers that led to 18 points for Villanova. The Cats shot 41.8 percent but knocked down 11 three-point shots, four by Paschall.
Booth scored 11 of his 15 points in the final 7:55, and Bey added 15.
“They did a great job defensively showing different looks,” Booth said. “They’re a very athletic team with a lot of length but shots just started to fall our way in the second half.”
Strus, the Big East’s fourth-leading scorer with an 18.8-point average, was held to three points on 1-for-7 shooting in the first half but finished with 16. Cain, a Pennsauken, N.J., native, also had 16 but only had two points in the final 30 minutes.
The Blue Demons, who outscored Villanova, 30-16, in the opening 10 minutes, held a 38-34 lead at the half and scored the first seven points of the second half with the Wildcats missing their first six shots from the floor. A hook shot by Paul Reed gave DePaul a 45-34 lead three minutes in.
The Blue Demons still were leading by eight, 53-45, after Strus hit two of three free throw attempts with 11:04 to play, and the team’s top scorer hit a three-pointer almost two minutes later to make it 56-51 before Villanova’s rally.
Bey, who came off the bench after starting the previous nine games, led the team with 10 points in the first half and Paschall added nine. DePaul had 12 assists on 16 baskets in the first half and outrebounded Villanova, 19-11. The Blue Demons held advantages of 18-6 in the paint and 16-3 on the fast break.
The Blue Demons dominated play for the opening 10 minutes, knocking down 12 of their first 16 shots including five three-pointers. Cain was 4-of-4 from beyond the arc, and his long-distance basket gave DePaul its largest lead of the first half at 30-16 with 10:22 to play.
Villanova finally got some traction on defense and held the Blue Demons to just one basket over the next seven minutes and went on a 13-2 run during that time to trim the deficit to 32-29 on Paschall’s two free throws with 4:15 to play.