TAMPA, Fla. - Villanova continued yesterday its week of living dangerously, a method of trying to win a Big East Conference game on the road with its best big man sitting out more than half of it with foul trouble.
But this was South Florida, not Connecticut, and the Sun Dome was less than half-full and nearly as quiet as the school library, so the 20th-ranked Wildcats enjoyed more success than they did Wednesday in noisy Hartford.
Dante Cunningham played just 19 foul-plagued minutes, but the rest of the Wildcats improved their game in a 70-61 victory over the Bulls that was a lot closer than the final margin indicated.
Cunningham, the team's top scorer and rebounder, made his mark while on the floor, scoring 14 points. But after a 14-minute appearance in Villanova's 89-83 loss at Connecticut, it's clear that he must stay on the floor if the Wildcats are to succeed against tougher teams. Villanova is now 15-4 overall, 3-3 in the Big East.
"We've been struggling with really playing hard defense consistently," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Dante is trying to be a leader and show the guys how to do it. We definitely need him on the floor, but I do admire what he's doing, trying to set an example."
Cunningham's second foul, which earned him a seat on the bench for the final 11 minutes, 46 seconds of the first half, came when he unwisely tried to steal the ball from USF's Dominique Jones from behind.
"When you're the best player," Wright said, "maybe you let that one go."
"We always talk about getting taps from behind," Cunningham said. "You have to go after rebounds hard and always be an aggressive defender. We're trying to show the young guys you don't always have to sit back and try to stay in the game."
With Cunningham out, Villanova's bench stood out. Shane Clark grabbed eight rebounds in 20 minutes. Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher scored 10 points apiece, leading a 25-1 scoring edge for the Wildcat reserves.
With Scottie Reynolds content to distribute the ball (a season-high seven assists) rather than score (seven points, one shot in the second half), the contributions from Stokes and Fisher helped.
"He's in-between where they're not doubling him, they're soft-blitzing him [on screens] trying to get the ball out of his hands," Wright said of Reynolds. "He's got to stay aggressive."
The Bulls (7-12, 2-5) suffered a major blow when Jones, their top scorer with an 18.8-point average, fouled out with 5:28 to play and 11 points. But USF never allowed the Wildcats to relax until the very end.
Villanova led, 60-53, with 4:50 to play following Stokes' three-ball, but the visitors didn't score again for more than 31/2 minutes. The Bulls closed to 60-58 but could have been leading had forward Augustus Gilchrist done better than 1 of 4 on free throws.
Then Dwayne Anderson, who had a team-high 11 rebounds, broke the Villanova drought. He took the ball on the left wing, drove to the hoop across the lane, and put up a reverse layup with 1:13 left.
"I just wanted to make a play," Anderson said. "Our coaches talk about a straight line to the basket. So it was great for that moment at that point in the game."
Villanova made 9 of 13 free throws after Anderson's basket. In the second half, the Bulls shot only 28 percent from the field and 50 percent from the line.
The Wildcats continue a schedule pattern of alternating ranked and unranked teams Wednesday at the Wachovia Spectrum against No. 4 Pittsburgh. They have to hope Cunningham plays more than 19 minutes to have a chance.
"I wanted things to stop so I could just tell him, 'You can't do that. You can't go to the sidelines,' " a smiling Anderson said of his thoughts after Cunningham's second first-half foul. "But we know we have other guys that are willing to step up."