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Villanova 98, Middle Tennessee 69: Wildcats begin S.C. tourney with easy win

Villanova is looking for an in-season tournament title for the seventh straight year. They're a third of the way there.

Middle Tennessee State guard Anthony Crump (0) and forward Tyler Millin (1) pressure Villanova forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl during the first half.
Middle Tennessee State guard Anthony Crump (0) and forward Tyler Millin (1) pressure Villanova forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl during the first half.Read moreGerry Broome / AP

CONWAY, S.C. — Villanova’s basketball teams have won a November tournament in each of the last six seasons. Even last year, after the Wildcats had lost at home by 27 to a Michigan team they had toyed with in the national-title game seven months earlier.

Last week, they lost by 25 at Ohio State. It happens. Now, after an easy-as-expected win over Ohio, they find themselves back in another in-season tourney, this time the Myrtle Beach Invitational, trying to extend their streak. It’s a different group, with no seniors and some promising youngsters. Each journey is unique. At least they’ll have a while to figure out exactly where it can take them.

In Thursday’s opening game at Coastal Carolina’s HTC Center, which tipped at 11:30 a.m. for ESPN, the 17th-ranked Wildcats improved to 3-1 with a 98-69 win over overmatched Middle Tennessee (3-2).

“We talk about it with the players, but we never talk about winning,” coach Jay Wright said. “These three games are valuable each time. You’re on the road. You get to be together. I love that.”

This one was over almost immediately. Collin Gillespie, who missed the preseason because of a broken nose, scored 8 points in the first minute, on two trifectas and a pair of free throws. It was 24-4 after six minutes and 53-28 at the half, at which point Cole Swider already had a career-best 21 points on 8-for-9 shooting (5-of-6 from beyond the arc).

He ended up with 26, and Gillespie, 16. The Wildcats had 27 assists and 12 turnovers. They made 18 (one off the program record) of 38 threes, which made everything else seem easier.

Even more noteworthy was the first appearance of Bryan Antoine, a five-star recruit who underwent labrum surgery in late May and wasn’t cleared to practice until early this month. The 6-5 guard checked in with 14:21 to go in the first half and looked, well, about how you’d project after such a prolonged layoff. You have to start somewhere. And even this early, it’s hard to miss the potential.

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He played 19 minutes. He missed his first two shots, each from deep. It got better. His first bucket was a dunk off a mid-court steal with just under nine minutes remaining. The speed was evident. Then he drilled a left-wing three-pointer. He already looked more confident. He added a couple of layups to go with two assists.

“It’s been kind of crazy,” he said, with a smile. “I was actually wearing the jersey, going up and down, playing with the guys.

“I just wanted to play hard. But I knew I had to do something nice.”

It will be a process. Yet, with someone of his pedigree, the hope is that evolution can be accelerated as much as possible. Because the Wildcats figure to need what he brings.

“I wasn’t expecting anything,” Wright said. “He’s only been to three or four practices. We want to be comfortable as a team. We have to get him to know what everyone’s doing.

“There’s going to be some bumps for this team. And we’ll deal with that.”

They’ll next face Mississippi State (5-0) and one-time UCLA coach Ben Howland in the second round, at 2 p.m. Friday.