Villanova coach Jay Wright wants to see sophomore Corey Stokes expand his game to become a reliable contributor at the defensive end.
For now, though, the 6-foot-5 Stokes is doing what he does best - knocking down the three-point shot - and the Wildcats can be awfully tough when he does that.
Stokes sank four three-pointers, three of them sparking a first-half surge, and led all scorers with 18 points to lift the 15th-ranked Wildcats to a 70-59 victory over La Salle in a Big Five game before a sellout crowd of 4,000 tonight at Tom Gola Arena.
The Wildcats (10-1 overall, 3-0 Big Five) also got 13 points from Scottie Reynolds in winning their second City Series game in four nights. Rodney Green and Kimmani Barrett scored 16 points apiece to lead the Explorers (4-4, 0-1).
"We lost to a very good, veteran basketball team," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "We're disappointed because it was a great opportunity for us. We feel we're experienced and talented enough to defeat a team of this caliber. But the difference was their ability to pass the basketball. They do a great job of executing."
Villanova broke the game open in the first half with a 20-1 run, holding La Salle without a field goal for a span of 6 minutes, 28 seconds. Stokes sank three three-point baskets during the spurt, and finished the run with a three-ball that gave the Cats a 36-19 lead with 4:13 remaining.
Wright credited his team's defense, especially the play of bench players Shane Clark and Reggie Redding.
"They were incredible," Wright said. "They brought a lot of energy off the bench. Both teams were battling, but these two were fresh. Shane was all over the glass and Reggie played great defense. They helped us rest our starters."
Stokes finished the half with 14 points.
"It felt good," Stokes said of the first-half run. "I think our defensive pressure helped us. We forced turnovers and it let us run. Coach told us to keep it up."
Wright has been on Stokes all season to pick up his intensity on defense, and is liking what he sees.
"He's really improving and I like that he's improving defensively, too," he said. "Near the end, we made a substitution and put him in for defense. That's a new role for him. So he's learning and he's really getting to be a better player."
The Explorers trailed by 10 at the half but never got closer than double digits the entire second half until Green's driving basket with 22 seconds to play brought them to within nine.
The Wildcats managed to keep a double-figure cushion for most of the second half by not getting into an extended drought. Reynolds hit back-to-back three-point baskets to make it a 14-point lead. Redding sank a layup and then knocked down a trey to give Villanova its largest lead, 58-39, with 8:41 to play.
After a Dante Cunningham layup made it an 18-point game, the Explorers got a basket and a three-ball from Barrett in a run of seven straight points to still give them hope at 62-51 with 4:32 to play.
But the Wildcats broke the Explorers' press with ease, and Stokes picked up a layup. Reynolds later twice missed the front end of a one-and-one situation, but the Explorers couldn't capitalize.
The Wildcats had to play the final 12:52 of the first half without Cunningham, their leading scorer and rebounder. Cunningham picked up two quick fouls early and Wright kept him on the bench to avoid having him pick up a third.
Cunningham, who did not score in the first half, picked up nine points in the second, the first time this season he has not scored in double figures.
The Explorers made eight of their first 12 shots and took an 18-16 lead on Jerrell Williams' shot in the lane with 10:08 remaining in the first half. But the Wildcats then turned it on at both ends and threatened to make the game a runaway.