NEW YORK - It was already Villanova's third game this season in the city that never doses off, which is as many as the seventh-ranked Wildcats have played at the Pavilion. Last month, they beat two ranked teams in Brooklyn in 24 hours.
But the last time they played at Madison Square Garden, they were upset by Seton Hall on a jumper at the buzzer in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. They'll be back at the Garden early next month against St. John's, and again in March for hopefully more than just 40 minutes in another conference tourney.
"They know I love coming here," said coach Jay Wright. "They're East Coast basketball guys. But what's important is, you can't get caught up in it. You have to play, and be excited by the challenge."
Last night's game was the opener of the 20th Jimmy V Classic doubleheader, against an Illinois team that plays a lot like the 'Cats and had cracked the Top 25 last week before losing at No. 15 Miami. It's their only non-Big 5 game in an 11-day stretch that concludes Sunday afternoon with Temple on the Main Line. It was also their only non-Philadelphia game from Dec. 6 to Jan. 3, with only the Dec. 20 game against Syracuse set for the Wells Fargo Center.
This one was tied at 50 with 8 1/2 minutes to go. Then the Wildcats, who had led by 11 in the first half, scored on their next 10 possessions, with guard Dylan Ennis and big man Daniel Ochefu, both juniors, inflicting the bulk of the damage. The final was 73-59. So they remained unbeaten through their first nine.
"All the good teams will get better," said Wright, whose team moved up three spots in this week's poll. "It's how much better can we get. There's a lot of things we can do. I felt like we got punched twice tonight."
It still wasn't enough, even though the Wildcats turned it over a season-high 16 times (they had 15 in their last game, against Saint Joseph's), two more than the Illini (7-2). And gave up 14 offensive rebounds. And only made four three-pointers, which is often their first and sometime seemingly only option. In the end it hardly mattered.
Ennis had 12 of his 18 points in the closing 10 minutes. No Wildcat has scored 20 in a game yet. Ochefu had 10 of his 12 after intermission, including back-to-back low-post buckets - one with his left hand and the next with his right - in the middle of the decisive run that Ennis had started with consecutive threes. Josh Hart added 10 off the bench, to go with a team-best seven boards.
"If we didn't get that from Daniel, we don't win," Wright noted. "They're such an outstanding perimeter defensive team. So that was a major impact. JayVaughn [Pinkston] always gives us that too. But now it's a second option."
Especially on a night when the Brooklyn-born Pinkston was limited to four shots and eight points, and had five turnovers.
But with this group, it's always someone's turn.
"It's never one guy," said Ennis, who shot 7-for-10 to go with five boards, three assists and three steals in a team-high 35 minutes, which could almost make you overlook his four turnovers. "We play as a team. You're never thinking about taking over a game. That's what so great about it. I just wanted to do what I do for my team and get the win.
"In practice, coach always tells us defense, no matter what. We play exactly the same way. That's what we take pride over. I just stuck to what I do. I didn't see anything different."
Illinois, which was averaging 83 points per, also ranked 24th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. But Villanova shot 29-for-54, 25-for-42 inside the arc.
The Illini got 20 from sophomore guard Malcolm Hill, six more than his average. Top scorer Rayvonte Rice, a fifth-year senior forward, was held to a season-low 10 for the second straight game on 5-for-15 shooting. He had none in the final 16 minutes, while Hill managed two in the last 10.
"The momentum came from our defense," Ennis said. "We got stops and rebounds. A lot of people get riled up from offense. We're different."
And dangerous. But it's still early. They want to be relevant when America is really paying attention. First, though, they'll deal with Temple. It's the only way they know.
"I know it's boring and the players are sick of hearing me say it, but Temple is next," Wright said. "We'll put everything into Temple. That's how we do it. The young guys say it. The juniors and seniors really do it."
He has five of them. And it's showing, at least so far. Just in case, they have NJIT at home just before Christmas, sandwiched between Syracuse and Top 25 Butler in the conference opener.
"They [NJIT] just won at Michigan," Wright reminded everyone. It won't be the last time.