NEW YORK - After Villanova shot and rebounded as poorly as it had in some time in an NIT Season Tipoff contest against Stanford, Villanova coach Jay Wright spent the rest of Thanksgiving Day being thankful for his defense.
The eighth-ranked Wildcats shot 30.6 percent from the field and were outrebounded, 55-35, by the Cardinal. Yet they repeatedly came up with the defense they needed to limit Stanford to 26 percent shooting and force 23 turnovers in a 59-45 victory at the Barclays Center.
Villanova (5-0), which will play Georgia Tech for the championship on Friday, never had a game this bad in two key areas last season. The Wildcats' season low for shooting then was 31.1 percent in their NCAA loss to North Carolina State, and they went minus-13 on the boards twice, against the Wolfpack and at Creighton.
But Wright, who saw freshman Jalen Brunson score a game-high 18 points, will grudgingly accept the ugly victory.
"On nights when we're not making shots, the defense has got to keep us in it," he said. "I think our defense did. I think creating turnovers actually got us some easy buckets, but we struggled against their half-court defense. But I was proud of the guys and the way they grinded defensively."
The Cardinal (2-3) adjusted their starting lineup and put 6-foot-9 Michael Humphrey in at forward in place of 6-5 Dorian Pickens. That gave them a 6-9, 6-8, 6-9 front line against the Wildcats' three tallest starters - 6-11 Daniel Ochefu, 6-6 Kris Jenkins, and 6-5 Josh Hart.
Offensive rebounding kept the game from being decided early given Stanford's poor starts - 0 for 16 in the first half, 0 for 8 in the second. The Cardinal pulled down 20 offensive rebounds (Villanova had 23 defensive rebounds) and held a 17-7 edge in second-chance points.
Perhaps Villanova's key player was Darryl Reynolds, the 6-8 junior from Lower Merion who played 19 minutes while Ochefu battled foul trouble and contributed five rebounds and tough defense in the paint.
"He did a great job, when our guards got beat, of protecting the rim and also came up with a couple of big offensive rebounds to save possessions for us," Wright said.
Reynolds said, "It felt good to step in and do what my teammates needed me to do, setting ball screens on offense and keeping guys in front of me on defense, making sure I was playing smart at the defensive end."
Villanova used a 12-3 run in the first six minutes of the second half to take its largest lead, 42-26, but hit just two of its next 12 shots while the Cardinal came back. Stanford got as close as 46-39 on a basket by Reid Travis with 6 minutes, 35 seconds to play.
However, on the next possession, the 6-foot-8 Travis missed a wide-open dunk and hung on the rim, resulting in a technical foul.
Brunson made the free throw, then Ryan Arcidiacono, who had been 0 for 6 from deep, knocked down his only three-pointer of the game on the same possession. Jenkins then sank two free throws for a 52-39 lead, and the Cardinal never got closer than nine after that.