Villanova's Jalen Brunson spent enough of his childhood in the Philadelphia area to know what the Big Five is all about, and on Tuesday night he got to experience a real City Series battle against La Salle at the Palestra that remained in doubt in the final minute.
Brunson, a sophomore, scored a career-high 26 points, six of them coming in the final 1 minute, 28 seconds, to help the No. 1 Wildcats hold off the gritty Explorers, 89-79, before a crowd of 7,120 for their 17th consecutive victory in City Series play.
The former Cherry Hill resident made 10 of his 17 field-goal attempts, several of them when he would take his defender inside the paint and score, to help the Cats (9-0, 3-0 Big Five) grind out a victory against a team that, in the eyes of Jay Wright, "is just as talented one-on-one offensively as we are."
The Explorers (4-3, 0-2) showed that by shooting 52.5 percent from the field. After a 3-of-13 start to the second half, they knocked down 12 of their last 18 shots and, behind a 27-point effort from sophomore guard Pookie Powell, narrowed a 13-point lead down to four with 1:18 to play.
Brunson hit four free throws in the final 41.7 seconds, and Josh Hart, in the final minute, added a basket, two free throws, and a highlight-film assist where he dove to corral a loose ball and, from a seated position on the court, fed Donte DiVincenzo for a layup. Hart added 21 points.
Of his offense, Brunson said, "I really just played what the defense gave me. Coach always said to be aggressive, be ready to catch and shoot, be ready to make plays and I was just feeling it."
Wright gave credit to La Salle and its coach, John Giannini, whom he said "had a little bit better plan for us than I did for them."
"Their team came in and had a good game plan against us, played with a little bit more energy than us, and played really well against us," Wright said. "And we didn't have our best game because of them and we found a way to grind it out."
The Wildcats held their largest lead, 65-52, with 7:17 to play after Hart and Mikal Bridges hit back-to-back three-point baskets, and their advantage still stood at 10, 73-63, after Hart's turnaround basket with 2:39 remaining.
But the Explorers kept chipping away and narrowed the gap to four, 77-73, on a three-pointer by Jordan Price with 1:18 to play. The margin was four, at 79-75, before Hart took a length-of-the-court pass against the La Salle press and sank a layup.
After Amar Stukes missed for the Explorers, Brunson was fouled and sank two free throws to make it an eight-point lead, 83-75, and La Salle didn't threaten again.
The Explorers' two top point producers didn't have big scoring nights. B.J. Johnson was limited to 26 minutes because of foul trouble and scored 13. Price managed just nine points, but Giannini noticed his six assists against one turnover.
"Jordan is always a big part of the other team's game plan, but he got other players involved tonight," the coach said. "That's Jordan Price's best game since he's been here. He worked to get other guys the ball. He did a really good job."