IN JAY WRIGHT'S tenure at Villanova, Wildcats games generally are not works of art. They are more often than not a test of wills.
No matter the opponent, Villanova will attack on defense to wear down a team and then have enough offensive spurts against tired legs to find a way to win, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot.
The Wildcats found themselves facing a willing opponent last night at the Palestra, in the nightcap of a Philly Hoop Group Classic doubleheader. Towson was not supposed to win. The Towson players, however, chose to deviate from the script - for a while.
Pat Kennedy's team from the North Baltimore suburb went after loose balls and rebounds with just as much fervor as the Wildcats. They, too, contested shots and helped make the early part of the game somewhere between ugly and unwatchable.
Eventually, offensive order was restored, and Villanova, which scored the last points of the first half on a Corey Fisher buzzer-beating trey and the first seven points of the second half in the middle of a game-ending 16-2 run, ran a five-point halftime lead into a 64-47 win.
"We were excited in the first half," Wright said. "Defensively, we were over helping and that gave them some threes. But you have to give them credit, too. They knew we were aggressive."
The Wildcats play Rhode Island in tonight's championship game of the "Independence Bracket." Towson plays Penn State in the third-place game.
Towson (3-2) made its first shot and missed its next nine. 'Nova (5-0) was not much better as the teams combined to miss 17 of their first 20 shots. After more than 8 minutes, 'Nova led, 7-5. It played out just about as that score sounds.
Eventually, both teams started making some shots. The Wildcats just made more of them.
'Nova's terrific backcourt of Scottie Reynolds (14 points, six rebounds, six assists) and Fisher (11 points) sort of cruised about the court at the speed limit, always probing for soft spots. They found some in the first half and more in the second. Dante Cunningham (12 points, seven rebounds) picked his spots as always. Antonio Pena also had 12 points and seven rebounds for 'Nova.
'Nova's fans always fill up the Ski Lodge and often fill up the Wachovia Center. But there were just a few thousand of them at the Palestra. These games were not part of the season-ticket package and the students are on break.
So it was a much different atmosphere for 'Nova's players, who had played every game at home where there was lots of noise, all for them.
Towson did not make a field goal for the first 8 minutes of the second half, missing nine shots, many of them airballs as 'Nova's defense became impenetrable. The Tigers were seeing hands even when those hands weren't really there. Junior Hairston, who threw down a flying dunk on the 'Cats in the first half, saw another dunk attempt blasted out of bounds by Cunningham.
"We take tremendous pride in that," Cunningham said about his team's attention to defensive detail. "That's our No. 1 thing. That was the first thing that was pounded into my head when I first got here as a freshman . . .
"The young ones come in, all about scoring, all about offense. They just want to go run and shoot. They just have got to learn we play defense here."
They do, indeed.
Kennedy was out of timeouts with 13 1/2 minutes left. He could not call them fast enough. He was fighting for his team, but it was a fight he was not going to win.
"I spoke to some Big East coaches this week," Kennedy said when asked Villanova's defense. "They get up in you. Their posts plays as hard defensively as any posts in the country, bar none. They will deny you 25 feet out, they deny the elbows, they deny in the low block. They're physical."
Villanova's defense held Towson to 32.7 percent shooting. The Tigers were just 7-for-25 (28 percent) in the second half.
URI definitely will be 'Nova's stiffest test of the young season. The Rams have some veteran talent and have played difficult opponents in less-then-neutral venues before. The Rams have been scoring without much difficulty all season, averaging nearly 85 points per game. Scoring will be much more difficult tonight.
When it was suggested to Reynolds that tonight's game would be his team's first serious test, he demurred, suggesting his coach was "like Bill Belichick," not wanting anybody to know what he really thought.
"Honestly, having a chance to sit back and watch all the games that are going on across the country and seeing ranked teams play ranked teams, this is a great team," Reynolds said of URI. "They went in and played Duke tough. We feel like we're going to have to have a tough one."
They will have a tough one, but so will Rhode Island.
Rhode Island (5-1) got the lead over Penn State with 14 1/2 minutes left in the first half and, despite, being threatened for the rest of the game, refused to give that lead up and beat the Nittany Lions in the first game of last night's doubleheader, 77-72.
The Rams' big three of Jimmy Baron (20 points), Keith Cothran (18) and Kaheim Seawright (16) combined for 54 points.
Penn State (5-1) used its timeouts and a few late three-point shots to give itself a chance at overtime. But, trailing, 75-72, with 5 seconds left, an open three by Stanley Pringle was short. The ball was tied up. URI had the possession arrow. And Baron, son of coach Jim Baron, knocked in the clinching free throws.
URI's only loss this season was at Duke, 82-79.
Jamelle Cornley's 23 points led PSU.
The teams with former Big 5 assistants won, as expected, in the afternoon doubleheader, and the winless teams are still winless.
Hartford, coached by former Temple assistant Dan Leibovitz, beat New Jersey Institute of Technology, 50-38. Hartford (2-4) will play Niagara, coached by former La Salle assistant Joe Mihalich in today's championship game of the "Liberty Bracket." The Purple Eagles (4-1) used a 20-1 run first-half run to blow open its game against Monmouth and win, 71-48.
Joe Zeglinski (Archbishop Ryan) had five treys and 17 points for Hartford. NJIT shot 25.5 percent for the game and now has lost 37 straight, going back three seasons.