NEW YORK - Villanova wasn't supposed to win last night at Madison Square Garden. So when the Wildcats, who had lost two of their previous three games, trailed 10th-ranked, unbeaten Missouri by 16 points with a little over 12 minutes to go in the first game of the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader, well, it seemed about right.
But 11 minutes later the Wildcats were within seven, with the ball. A turnover coming out of a timeout when Maalik Wayns got trapped in the corner and threw a pass that sailed untouched into the backcourt, pretty much derailed their comeback. The Tigers, who have a bunch of seniors, then converted five of six free throws before the Wildcats could score again. The final was 81-71, as Missouri improved to 8-0 for the first time in five seasons. Villanova will take a 5-3 record into Saturday's bus ride to Temple, which hasn't lost at home in nearly 2 years.
"We weren't surprised by how good they were," coach Jay Wright said of the Tigers. "We tried to scrap and fight and keep it close and steal it at the end. That was our chance [before the turnover]. We could have put a little more pressure on them.
"We got better. It's a little embarrassing to sit here and say that, when you lose by 10, but that's where we are right now. To beat this kind of team, you have to grind and grind and make some plays at the end. That's exactly what we were looking for. But we made a couple of [late] mistakes, and they made a couple of great plays. But I can [still] feel good about that."
Missouri, which beat then-No. 20 Cal by 39 a few weeks ago in Kansas City, reminds Wright of his 2005-06, perimeter-oriented club that made it to the Final Eight.
"They're fun to watch," he acknowledged.
But not necessarily to play. The Wildcats led by two after 13 minutes. Following a 14-2 Missouri run, they were down 13 at the break. The Tigers, who had closed the first half by making eight of their last 14 shots, started the second by going 6-for-6. And it looked like this one might be over. Except it wasn't. Villanova kept coming, and with 5 minutes left got to within six. Missouri got field goals on its next two trips.
The margin became a dozen, but Wayns hit his first two baskets of the second half, a trey from straightaway and a midrange leaner from the left wing, to get the Wildcats back in it one final time. At this point, they just didn't have enough.
"I'd like us to be on the other end of this, and Missouri was trying to stay close to us," acknowledged Wright, after his sixth straight loss to a ranked opponent. "We're just not there yet. We have a lot of room for improvement in a lot of spots. It might not show in wins and losses right now, but we have a chance to be a good team.
"These are games that give you a measuring stick."
The Wildcats didn't have junior reserve big man Maurice Sutton, who is out for a while with a dislocated thumb. And 6-9 Markus Kennedy, one of five freshmen, played 8 minutes off the bench after sitting out Saturday's home win over Penn with a shoulder injury. But you play with what you have. Temple will be missing two starters as well. For what it's worth, this was just the third time in the last 25 games that Villanova has lost when it reached 70.
"We didn't run out of gas," said Dominick Cheek, who had 12 points, one of Villanova's five double-digit scorers. "They have a lot of answers. It's not like you can make an eight-point play against a team like that. We cut it, they're a good team and they [responded]. It's not really about scoring at the end of games. It's about stops . . . This will help us a lot."
Wayns finished with a team-high 14, to go with nine assists (and five turnovers). Mouphtaou Yarou had 11, with eight rebounds. Freshman JayVaughn Pinkston, in his second start, had a career highs of 10 points and seven boards. First-year guard Darrun Hilliard, in 30 minutes off the bench, matched his career high with his second straight 13-point effort.
The Tigers got 28 from Marcus Denmon (10-for-16, 6-for-10 from the arc), eight above his average and three short of his career best. Ricardo Ratliffe, who had shot 22-for-24 in his last three games, went 8-for-8 to finish with 17. He also grabbed 11 off the glass, five at the offensive end. Kim English added 15. Phil Pressey, the younger of two sons of former NBA standout Paul Pressey who start for the Tigers, had a career-high 12 assists. The last, and biggest, was a no-look to Ratliffe for a dunk that made it 70-62.
"All in all, it was great to see what would happen if we hit a little adversity," said first-year Missouri coach Frank Haith, formerly of Miami, who grew up in nearby Queens. "It's the first night we didn't shoot well [42 percent, 48 second half] . . . [Villanova] is tough and hard-nosed."
Not to mention an evolving entity.
"It's a 40-minute game," said Wayns. "We probably played 33 great minutes. And those other minutes cost you.
"I was trying to be aggressive [on the key turnover], look for a trailing three. They denied it. I should have called timeout, but I didn't . . . After six or seven games, I don't look at the [young guys] as freshmen anymore. [Temple's] the next challenge. Every game's a big game for us."
Darius Johnson-Odom had 23 points and five assists as No. 11 Marquette (7-0) held off Washington, 79-77.