The people who snickered at Villanova's pre-Big East Conference schedule and wondered whether the Wildcats would ever get tested should have been at the Pavilion last night to see them sweat one out.
With one starter out and two members of the rotation nicked up, the 23d-ranked Wildcats faced foul trouble, losing three frontcourt players in the process, and had to reach deep to come away with a 77-62 win over Niagara in their first game of the Philly Hoop Group Classic.
Forwards Antonio Pena, Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham fouled out. Starter Dwayne Anderson already was on the bench, still recovering from a stress fracture in his left foot, and Corey Stokes (sprained left thumb) and Casiem Drummond (soreness in his left foot) were limited.
That created all kinds of problems for coach Jay Wright's short bench. The Purple Eagles (1-1) made some runs at the Wildcats (3-0), but the Villanova defense stood its ground when it counted.
"Because they played so small, it made it even more difficult," Wright said. "I was happy. It wasn't a pretty victory, but we gutted it out. That's a good one to have in the bank."
Guard Scottie Reynolds, who led all scorers with 19 points, said it was a matter of staying aggressive against the Niagara zone without the veteran forwards to help out with ballhandling.
"With the post guys not being able to relieve the pressure, we had to be strong with the ball," Reynolds said. "A couple of times we went in there with no idea what to do, but you have to go into the lane with an idea. If not, you're going to make bad decisions."
The Purple Eagles enjoyed a Philadelphia reunion, and appeared right at home.
Coach Joe Mihalich was a player and an assistant coach at La Salle. Bilal Benn (Cardinal Dougherty) played two seasons at Villanova before transferring. Guard Tyrone Lewis graduated from Truman High in Bucks County. Forward Kashief Edwards is a freshman from Imhotep.
The 5-foot-11 Lewis led the Purple Eagles with 16 points, but he had to work harder for shots in the second half against the defense of 6-5 Reggie Redding.
"For us, we did a good job in the second half on Lewis and Bilal," Wright said. "Those guys gave us trouble in the first half. We did a good job with team defense, and Reggie did a good job on Lewis in the second half. I thought that was the difference."
Benn contributed 11 points and eight rebounds.
A stretch of cold shooting reduced Villanova's 13-point first-half lead to six, 36-30, at the break. The Purple Eagles trimmed the deficit to two points early in the second half and trailed, 53-48, with a little more than 10 minutes remaining before the Wildcats spurted.
A conventional three-point play by Corey Fisher (15 points) ended a 14-3 run and gave Villanova its largest advantage of the night, 67-51, with 5 minutes, 31 seconds to play. Then attrition started to hurt the Wildcats, who lost Pena, then Clark and Cunningham.
But Niagara couldn't make much of a dent, getting no closer than nine the rest of the way.
"We played well in stretches," Mihalich said. "I think we played hard and had a toughness to us. At the same time, when we look at that tape, I think there's going to be a lot of things that we regret. But they're a terrific team. We're going to be rooting for them the rest of the way."
Wright said he hadn't planned to play Stokes, the team's second-leading scorer, but the foul trouble made him think otherwise.
"He was not really 100 percent but he played hurt, which was good," he said of Stokes, who scored eight points in 27 minutes. "He's going to be OK."
As for the 6-10 Drummond, Wright said he was cleared to play but he didn't like the defensive matchup against the smaller Purple Eagles.