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No. 6 Villanova 67, Syracuse 53: The Wildcats knock down 13 threes and defeat their old Big East rival

The Wildcats followed a horrendous shooting first half with a more smoothly running offense against the Orange zone in the second half, and held a 57-36 rebounding advantage.

Villanova guard Justin Moore passes around Syracuse guard Symir Torrence (10) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Jimmy V Classic Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Villanova guard Justin Moore passes around Syracuse guard Symir Torrence (10) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Jimmy V Classic Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)Read moreAdam Hunger / AP

NEW YORK – Villanova coach Jay Wright knew the plan had to change at halftime after he watched his team fire up 28 three-point shots in the opening 20 minutes against the tight Syracuse zone defense and make just five of them.

But life got better for the sixth-ranked Wildcats against the zone in the second half, with the ball being worked into the middle and then out for open threes, and the Cats rebounding fiercely as a group especially on the offensive boards, all leading to a 67-53 victory over the Orange before a crowd of 14,344 at Madison Square Garden.

In the nightcap of the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader, Villanova (7-2) outrebounded the Orange, 57-36, and pulled down 27 offensive rebounds, leading to a 25-7 advantage in second-chance points. Six players had six rebounds or more.

Wright said the second-half adjustment was taking 6-foot-7 forward Jermaine Samuels off the perimeter and putting him inside where he could pass out for open threes or make interior passes for layups. The Cats had eight threes and eight two-point baskets in the final 20 minutes.

“Not a great plan by the coaching staff in the first half,” Wright said.

“In the second half, we got Jermaine inside. We were getting the ball to him in the middle and he was making plays for everybody. Then when he didn’t make plays, it put him in position for offensive rebounding, too. I thought he was a real key to our second-half offense.”

Thanks to their 28-19 rebounding edge in the first half, the Wildcats trailed by only 29-26 at the break even though they shot just 24.3 percent from the floor.

In the second half, the Wildcats took control with a 12-2 run on four threes, with a basket by Samuels giving them a 55-47 lead with just under 8 minutes to play. Then a 6-0 run with three two-point baskets, including a ferocious dunk by Samuels, increased the margin to 10, 61-51, with 4:16 to play, and the Cats coasted home.

Justin Moore led the Cats with 18 points and Collin Gillespie added 14. Samuels chipped in with 13 points and a team high nine rebounds and Caleb Daniels had 11 and seven boards. Jimmy Boeheim led Syracuse (5-4) with 21 but his brother, Buddy, the team’s leading scorer with a 19.1-point average, managed just six points on 3-of-15 shooting.

The missed-shot zone

Wright had spoken Monday of how difficult Syracuse’s 1-3-1 zone defense was in its previous game against Florida State when the Orange hounded the Seminoles into a 4-for-30 performance from three in a 63-60 victory.

The Wildcats were either unable or unwilling to try to get the ball inside and then pass it out on the perimeter for easier threes. Instead, they were firing from behind the arc from all sorts of distances without success.

After making three of their first four from distance, the Cats went 2-for-24 in the final 17 minutes of the first half. At one point, they missed 13 straight attempts from distance. They shot just nine times from inside the arc, sinking four.

The second half saw Villanova try to work the ball inside more, with four of their first five baskets of the period coming from inside the arc. And even though the Wildcats didn’t have another two-point basket for more than 10 minutes, they wound up with plenty of open looks from three.

It’s not just the offense

Ask any Villanova player about bad shooting nights and he’ll come right back and tell you that the name of the game for the Wildcats is defense and rebounding. The defense held Syracuse to 35.7 percent shooting for the game and 32.1 percent in the second half. The Orange scored just eight points in the final 12 minutes, 21 seconds.

But the rebounding was the key factor, especially with Samuels in the second half.

“Everybody was getting threes and the shots weren’t falling (in the first half) so I knew I had to go in there and make plays, just keep the ball alive, give us extra possessions,” he said. “Obviously my shot wasn’t going down so I was just trying to make sure I did everything I could to be effective in the game.”

Swider versus his old team

Cole Swider, who played his first three seasons for Villanova, wore a Syracuse uniform on this night, drawing boos from some in the Villanova audience, and struggled with his shot. He went 2 of 7 with one three-point basket and scored five points, but he pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds and blocked three shots.

“That was the first time we’ve ever done that, played against one of our former players,” Wright said. “I can’t say that I enjoyed it. To be honest, I was trying not to look at him. We hugged after the game, but it was very uncomfortable to be honest with you. I hope we don’t have to do that again.”