Coming off a huge road victory in Hartford, Connecticut over the weekend against the UConn Huskies, the Villanova Wildcats returned home to the Main Line Monday night to square off with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at the Pavilion. With the ‘Cats firmly placing themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble, they could not afford a loss at home against Rutgers, who came into the night having lost 7 of their last 8 games, and had just lost their leading scorer, Eli Carter, to a fractured fibula in his right leg on Saturday. The Wildcats experienced first-hand, however, that no team in the Big East Conference can be taken lightly.
Ryan Arcidiacono staked Villanova (17-10 overall, 8-6 Big East) to an early 6-2 lead with a pair of 3-point baskets. On its next two possessions, the ‘Cats went inside to Senior Mouphtaou Yarou and were rewarded with his four converted free throws to build a 10-4 advantage over the Scarlet Knights (13-12, 4-10) with 16:14 left in the opening period.
Rutgers battled back to tie the game at 14 after a Myles Mack jumper, while the Wildcats went ice cold offensively, enduring a 10-minute stretch without a field goal. A free throw by Mack at the 7:30 mark of the first half gave Rutgers their first lead of the game, 15-14.
“I thought we were tentative, we just gotta go out and play,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. ”I wasn’t angry. Everyone was afraid to be the one to make a mistake.”
After a dreadful first 20 minutes in which ‘Nova shot just 30 percent from the floor, 2 for 10 from three-point range and missed half of their free throws, the two teams went to the locker room with the Wildcats trailing by ten, 31-21, their largest half-time deficit of the season. Myles Mack led the way for the Scarlet Knights with 17 points.
“In the first half, we struggled,” Wright said. ”We just didn’t play the kind of basketball we wanted to play. In the second half, we set the tone and just showed that we were going to keep grinding, no matter what the score was.”
Myles Mack picked up right where he left off in the first half, draining a jumper just 5 seconds after the two teams returned to give Rutgers a 12 point lead, it’s largest of the game. Following a vicious Kadeem Jack dunk over ‘Nova’s Mouphtaou Yarou, the Wildcats responded with an 8-0 run, ending on a Pavilion-rocking slam by JayVaughn Pinkston to cut the lead to one, as the sell-out crowd of 6,500 erupted. It was the type of dunk that told Rutgers that Villanova had seized control of the momentum, and the game.
James Bell followed with back to back three-point baskets on consecutive possessions, and at the 10:00 mark of the second half, Villanova led 50-47, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Rutgers would get to within one, but threes by Arcidiacono and Bell, along with clutch free-throw shooting by Pinkston, allowed the Wildcats to finish off the Scarlet Knights, with a final score of 71-63.
In a tale of two halves, Villanova shot 30 percent from the floor in the first half, and 57 percent in the second half, out-scoring Rutgers 50-32 in the final 20 minutes. The ‘Cats made just 2 shots from beyond the arc in the opening period, compared to 6 in the second. They are now 14-0 when making at least 6 three-point baskets this season, and 12-1 when scoring at least 70 points. ’Nova’s full-court pressure forced Rutgers into 8 second-half turnovers leading to 15 points, while the ‘Cats didn’t turn the ball over once the entire second half, the first time that’s happened this year.
Over the last few weeks, a 6-3 stretch that’s included four single-digit wins, including two over top-5 teams, the Wildcats have found ways to win games at the end instead of losing them.
“We’ve been here before,” James Bell said. “We know nobody’s going to give up. We trust the guys around us, and we have each others’ backs. We’re never going to give up, and that’s all we need.”
Ryan Arcidiacono, JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard each scored 14 points for Villanova, with Arcidiacono adding 4 assists and no turnovers. Mouphtaou Yarou recorded his 6th double-double of the year, finishing with 10 points and 12 rebounds. James Bell added 11 points, all in the second half. Myles Mack scored 24 of Rutgers’ 63 points on 7 for 11 shooting. He has now scored 52 points for the Scarlet Knights in their last two games.
“This game is going to help us a lot,” Wright said. “Being down 12 and not doing anything special, just doing what we had to do. We really struggled in the first half. We just came out and gutted it out in the second half. We had to make it ugly, and we made it ugly.”
Villanova has now won four of their last five contests, and remain at home for their next game against the Marquette Golden Eagles (18-6 overall, 9-3 Big East), a team that is currently ranked 17th in the Nation, on Saturday, February 23rd. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:00 PM and can be seen on ESPN.
The maturity and toughness the Wildcats showed in beating Rutgers will serve them well down the stretch. Earlier in the year, they might have lost that game, but this is a different team now, and there is no telling how far they can go.Tags: Big Five, Jay Wright, Mouphtaou Yarou, NCAA, Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova, win