Playing its first game in seven days, No. 22 Villanova came out with a lot of energy Sunday night for its Big 5 opener against La Salle. The Explorers also had energy after winning the Gulf Coast Showcase Wednesday in Florida, but they realized quickly that the Wildcats were a big step up in competition.
Still, even though the Cats established themselves defensively in the first half with runs of 14-0 and 12-0 that led to a 20-point halftime lead, the Explorers never let up in the second half and made Villanova work for what turned out to be an 83-72 victory at Finneran Pavilion in Ashley Howard’s return to the Main Line as La Salle’s head coach.
Howard spent five years as an assistant coach on Jay Wright’s Villanova’s staff.
It wasn’t an easy win. La Salle (4-3, 1-1 Big 5) held the Wildcats (5-2, 1-0) to one basket in the opening 8 minutes of the second half to trim a 48-28 halftime deficit to 10 points, 50-40. But Villanova stepped up on defense once again, holding the Explorers to four points in a 5 ½-minute span to restore its lead to 18, 62-44, with 7:44 to play.
La Salle scrapped all the way to the finish, however, but the Cats managed to maintain their double-digit advantage for all but a few seconds.
Freshman Justin Moore, who came off the bench for the first time after starting the first six games, provided an early spark for Villanova, scoring 15 points in the opening half. Moore finished with a career-high 25 points. Moore’s playmaking (five assists) was important since the Explorers chose to deny point guard Collin Gillespie the ball at every opportunity.
Saddiq Bey took over the scoring load in the second half, putting in 12 of his 19 points, and also pulled down 10 rebounds, the same total as Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Gillespie chipped in with 14 points.
The Explorers displayed the same balanced scoring they’ve exhibited in their previous six games. They had five players with eight or more points, led by Ed Croswell with 14 and David Beatty with 12. Croswell added 10 rebounds.
Villanova shot 49.1% overall from the field but committed 20 turnovers, while La Salle hit 39.4% of its field-goal attempts with 18 turnovers. The Wildcats won the game at the free-throw line, making 23 of 30 compared to 9 of 13 for the Explorers.
“I thought we did a lot of good things in the first half," Wright said. “Our defense was good, communication was good, attention to detail with the scouting report was good. In the second half, they just did a better job than us. They made better adjustments. It was a good job on their part.”
“I’m proud of my team," Howard said. "We battled. But in the first half, we let the game get away from us just with costly turnovers and poor transition defense. Our turnovers got those guys easy shots in transition. Then our energy went down and we got disheveled for a stretch in the first half that set us back.”
Wright said the Wildcats are gradually getting better, and what had to please him Sunday night was their play at the defensive end. They had 12 steals, five by Moore, and scored 21 points off turnovers. Of course, his team’s 20 turnovers were not satisfactory, and he will work with them going into this week’s Big 5 action -- Wednesday at home versus Penn, Saturday at St. Joseph’s.