VILLANOVA HAS dropped only seven Big 5 games in the last decade. Its lone loss to La Salle in that span came 2 years ago, the same season the Explorers made their memorable Sweet 16 run, and even that late November game was tied at the end of regulation.
Those programs clashed for their respective Big 5 openers last night at Tom Gola Arena. The result followed the trend of recent years, 10th-ranked Villanova improving to 7-0 on the season with an 84-70 win.
Both teams play another Big 5 game on Saturday, La Salle (4-3) meeting Temple (4-3) at the Palestra at noon and Villanova hosting Saint Joseph's (4-3) at the Pavilion at 1 p.m. St. Joe's upset Temple earlier last night at Hagan Arena.
The Wildcats, who already have marquee nonconference wins against VCU and Michigan under their belt, shot 56.6 percent from the field. They made seven of 14 three-point attempts.
"To come in here and win in a Big 5 game against, I think, a team that's going to be very good was good for us," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose program has a seven-game winning streak in Big 5 games. "We can still get a lot better."
Dylan Ennis, who has emerged as the team's leading scorer, and Darrun Hilliard led five Wildcats in double figures with 15 points apiece. Ennis set a personal season high with a game-high nine assists. Josh Hart scored a season-high 12 points on 4-for- 6 shooting.
Jerrell Wright paced La Salle with a game-high 19 points on 6-for-8 shooting. The Explorers' senior forward accomplished that in only 23 minutes on the floor. He picked up two fouls in the first 2 minutes, 36 seconds of the game, which sidelined him for the rest of the first half.
"It was very frustrating, knowing that I'm not out there with my team and that they're going through war and I'm on the sideline just watching," said Wright, who scored 17 of his points in the second half. "It was frustrating, but it's a learning experience."
Khalid Lewis chipped in a season-high 17 points for the Explorers, whose lone lead in the game came at 9-8. A pair of Wright free throws with 2 minutes, 10 seconds to play cut their deficit to 10, but that was as close as they got in a second half in which they outscored the Wildcats, 41-37. It was La Salle's third consecutive loss after a 4-0 start.
Villanova used a hot-shooting opening half to build a 47-29 halftime lead. The Wildcats were efficient — they turned the ball over only twice in the half and assisted on 13 of 18 made baskets — and shot a blistering 58.1 percent from the field. At the break, they had scored 17 points off eight La Salle turnovers.
"I couldn't possibly be more disappointed with the first half," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "Besides Khalid Lewis making some gutsy plays, I really can't think of anything else good that came from that first half.
"There's certain things that we worked on defensively that we didn't do at all. Of course, [Villanova is] very good. They're wonderful. But that's why this was such a meaningful game for us, to be able to test ourselves against an outstanding team like this."