NEW YORK - Jay Wright wished that the questions were different, that he was being asked about a Villanova victory instead of how pleased he was that his Wildcats had hung in with 10th-ranked Missouri.
With five freshmen in the rotation, the Wildcats showed the Tigers the entire scope of their game Tuesday night, all the spectacular plays and the basic mistakes, before falling, 81-71, at Madison Square Garden in the first game of the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader.
Playing a ranked team for the first time this season, the Wildcats (5-3) exhibited poor defense in falling behind by 16 points early in the second half, then showed some fine play at both ends of the floor in shaving the deficit to six.
The Wildcats placed five players in double figures and outrebounded the Tigers (8-0) by one. Defensively, however, they saw their opponent dish out 23 assists against eight turnovers and failed to find an answer for 6-foot-3 senior guard Marcus Denmon, who drained six three-pointers and scored a game-high 28 points.
"We're getting better," said Wright, the Villanova coach. "It's a little embarrassing to be saying that. You lose by 10 and you're saying you're getting better. But it's just where we are right now.
"It's tough to beat this kind of team. You can't press them. Their guards are so good. They've got a lot of answers. You're not going to come in and go up 20 on them. You've just got to grind and grind and grind and get it close at the end and make some plays."
The Wildcats had an extended slack period on the defensive end - the final seven minutes of the first half and the opening eight minutes of the second.
The Tigers, who played five seniors, used a 23-8 spurt to get to halftime with a 42-29 lead, and with the help of a 6-for-6 start to the second half, extended the margin to 16 on five occasions, the final time at 61-45 on a three-pointer by Denmon with 12 minutes, 20 seconds to play.
"We start the second half, and we give [Denmon] an open three and a backdoor cut," Wright said. "It's not coming ready to play those first couple of possessions, and that's five points right there to start the half."
But Villanova finally found its stride. Freshman Jay Vaughn Pinkston sparked a 10-0 run with five points, including a crossover in the lane that buckled the ankles of Missouri defender Steve Moore.
A three-ball by Dominic Cheek ended the run with 9:52 to play to bring the Cats within 61-55. A follow-up basket by Pinkston at the 5:02 mark got it to six again, at 68-62, but that was pretty much it.
Maalik Wayns, who led the Wildcats with 14 points and nine assists, didn't score in the second half until 2:40 remained. But he sandwiched a three-pointer and a floater in between a pair of turnovers that hurt his team's slim comeback chance.
Still, Wayns saw the positives, saying: "Our young guys showed me a lot in this game."
"It's a 40-minute game," he said. "Against a great team, a bad couple of minutes is going to cost you. But we're going to learn from that and keep going, go back to practice and get better."
Freshman Darrun Hilliard added 13 points for Villanova and Cheek chipped in with 12. Mouphtaou Yarou scored 11 points and pulled down eight rebounds, but he had his hands full with Missouri's 6-8 Ricardo Ratliffe, who went for 17 points and 11 rebounds and hit all eight of his field-goal attempts.
"There are positives we take out of this," Wright told reporters. "I'd like us to be on the other end. . . . I'd like us to be Missouri and you guys are talking about Missouri hanging with us. But we're just not there yet. I like this team. I think we have a chance to be a good team. But we have a lot of work to do."