During a hastily arranged Big 5 matchup at Finneran Pavilion late Saturday night, this year’s weird 2020 edition of Villanova-St. Joseph’s featured a cerebral Wildcats star, a physical big man who works through a game like a point guard.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl faced the Hawks with a protective mask after suffering a broken nose Wednesday against Butler. It inhibited the sophomore so much Saturday that he finished with 25 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists.
Pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll, passing off the high post, hitting from the baseline. St. Joe’s got the whole Robinson-Earl assortment, while he also gave full rim-protecting effort at the other end.
After the Hawks hung around for a half, Villanova shot away for a working cushion and an 88-68 final score, winning the matchup for the ninth straight season. The Wildcats turned the ball over just twice over the game’s first 29 minutes.
Although its own ball movement was effective, St. Joe’s couldn’t match that precision. Taylor Funk led the Hawks’ outside shooters, scoring 17 points, while freshman Jordan Hall was quite effective, with 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists.
Typical of 2020, this game originally had been scheduled for the last day of November, then was moved back a couple of days for scheduling reasons involving both schools, then got postponed indefinitely when St. Joe’s was hit by a positive COVID-19 test.
It got back on the schedule only when Villanova’s game against Virginia slated for Saturday night was canceled after Virginia had COVID problems. (Losing the marquee matchup, Fox switched from hoops to The Masked Singer on its main network and moved this game to FS1.)
As for Robinson-Earl’s broken nose, Wright said, “He wants to play with it. He doesn’t have to get surgery right now. He can get it at the end of the season.”
He’d broken it once before, Robinson-Earl said, in eighth grade. In fact, the mask he wore Saturday was the same one he wore after the eighth-grade break. His mother got it to him.
As well as Robinson-Earl played as a freshman, it seems obvious the game is slowing down more for him this season.
“That’s why he decided to come back,’' Wright said. “Last year, [he showed] he’s good enough to play in the NBA, as a defensive guy, a solid three-and-D guy. Can rebound, shoot threes. He wanted to be a complete player and he knew it took practice and reps and game situations. And I think he’ll continue to get better.”
Freshman year, Robinson-Earl said, was about picking up habits, “making sure you have them under your belt.” A little easier now, he said, not going out and thinking about those things so much, just playing.
Going in, St. Joe’s knew it would get some tough driving baskets from Ryan Daly, and some perimeter looks the Hawks would need to hit. They started out a little cold, but Dahmir Bishop heated up early, and Funk followed, for an early 15-14 Hawks lead.
The two teams traded mini-runs, St. Joe’s hanging within 30-28 with 3 minutes left before halftime after freshman Jordan Hall hit a deep three.
The Wildcats, however, have an immense capacity for dominating the final minutes before halftime. Villanova amped up its halfcourt defensive pressure, and scored on its last five first-half possessions. Included was a Jermaine Samuels three after great ball rotation, the last extra pass thrown by Robinson-Earl, who scored himself the next series from the foul line.
St. Joe’s -- which planned to leave Sunday for its next top 10 matchup, Monday at Tennessee -- went in still looking for its first win of the year, having dropped early ones to Auburn and Kansas, then another one Thursday at Drexel. The Hawks were a bit shorthanded again without Greg Foster or Cam Brown.
The Hawks saw no surprises from the other guys, as Villanova guards Justin Moore and Caleb Daniels both got it going, combining for 37 points. The Wildcats played to their No. 7 AP ranking, improving to 7-1.
“We played a terrific basketball team, and a royal basketball program,’' said Hawks coach Billy Lange. “Their players are beyond buying in, they’re leading in.”
Lange saw plenty of positive takeaways for his own squad, but added, “Our moments of immaturity, they just punish you.”