SYRACUSE, N.Y. - For the initial nine minutes of play, Villanova appeared to be turning Saturday's "duel of the unbeatens" against No. 2 Syracuse into a mismatch. The eighth-ranked Wildcats led by 18 points and looked as if they were not feeling any ill effects from spending Christmas with loved ones.
But 'Nova coach Jay Wright knew better. He sensed that his players did not return to campus after the holiday with the same edge that had carried the Cats to an 11-0 record entering the game at the Carrier Dome, and he was right.
The Orange answered 'Nova's opening 25-7 run with a 20-0 spurt of their own to seize control and kept the visitors from making a comeback bid in the second half, powering to a 78-62 victory over the Wildcats before 28,135, the largest crowd to see an NCAA game this season.
Wright credited Syracuse (12-0) with a tremendous defensive performance that held the Wildcats (11-1) to 28.9 percent shooting (21.7 percent from three-point range) after an 8-for-12 (5-for-8) start. But he said his team did not play its best game.
"I sensed when we came back from break that we were just a little bit off," he said. "We were in such a groove, we were playing really well. On our first day back for practice [Thursday], I saw it. We got a little bit better [Friday], and I was just hoping that [Syracuse] would be off a little bit, and they weren't.
"We made shots early, but they weathered it, and they kept coming back at us. That's what good teams do. I thought their defense was outstanding."
Other than senior James Bell, who had six three-point baskets and 25 points, none of the Wildcats starters shot well. JayVaughn Pinkston, the team's top scorer with a 16.5-point average, managed one basket - an off-balance, three-point bank shot to beat the shot clock.
Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono also accounted for one field goal each. Freshman Josh Hart scored 10, the only other 'Nova player in double figures, and combined with Bell to shoot 8 of 16 from deep. The rest of the team was 2 of 15.
"They were trying to take away the three," Bell said. "They gave JayVaughn a tough time catching the ball and making plays. But we still shot our shots. It didn't happen for us."
Bell hit his first three treys to help fuel the Wildcats' early run, and Hart scored the last five points to make the score 25-7 with 10 minutes, 55 seconds left in the first half. But Syracuse, led by dynamic freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, outscored Villanova by 31-9 the remainder of the half to lead, 38-34.
The Wildcats trailed by as many as 10 early in the second half before a Bell three-ball and a free throw by Daniel Ochefu cut the gap to 56-53 with 7:02 to play. Another Bell trey with 3:26 remaining kept 'Nova in it at 64-59, but the Orange went on a late run with the help of 12 free throws.
Trevor Cooney led Syracuse with 21, and Ennis added 20 in his duel with big brother Dylan Ennis, the Villanova sophomore.
"We just said, 'Good game, I love you,' " Dylan Ennis said of the postgame handshake with his brother. "We're still competitors. It's not the last time we could see them. We could see them in March again. So I'm not going to take the throttle off if we play them again. But until then, we'll be brothers."