Villanova struggles to climb mountain

Nathan McGann

Looking to extend its winning streak to seven games, the No. 13 men’s basketball team faltered on the road at West Virginia, getting destroyed by the unranked Mountaineers 93-72.

Junior forward Da’Sean Butler, who was coming off arguably the worst performance of his career, rebounded nicely to score a career-high 43 points, the first time a West Virginia player scored over 40 since 1978. In his previous game against Pittsburgh, Butler managed only four points on 2-12 shooting.

“I looked up [at the scoreboard]once right before that and just thought ‘Wow,'” Butler said. “My teammates got me the ball and I knew I was going to shoot a 3. I knew I was going to shoot it. I might not have made it, but I was shooting it. I’m glad I made it, though. That was pretty awesome.”

Entering the game, there were questions as to whether or not Butler would be able to play against Villanova after he rolled his ankle in practice the day before. Butler could barely walk after the practice and was still very sore leading up to the game, according to West Virginia Head Coach Bob Huggins.

“I came very close to not playing,” Butler said. “It was pretty bad when [the injury] happened. This morning, I really couldn’t walk, and I had to have someone help me get out of bed so I could come to the Coliseum.”

There were no questions about the ankle after the game, however, as Butler shot 12 of 23 from the field with six 3-pointers. He shot 13 of 15 from the free throw line.

“I’m just happy we won, honestly,” Butler said. “Granted the points are great and everything and I’m happy I got that, but I’m just glad that we have a chance to start a streak now. We’ve got Notre Dame coming in on Wednesday.”

Butler helped the Mountaineers build an early 20-point lead, scoring 24 points in the first half. Freshman forward Devin Ebanks added 16 points of his own, and West Virginia went into the half leading 52-34.

The Wildcats, who entered the game having scored 90 points in each of its three previous games, looked lost on the court against one of the better defenses in the Big East. The Mountaineers held Villanova to 42.3 percent shooting from the field and a meager 27.8 percent from beyond the arc.

“We got in foul trouble early and then defensively we just didn’t have an answer for Butler,” Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright said. “He was great and when we got down and we were trying to come back, we left him open a lot. He was just a great player tonight.”

The major storyline for Villanova was the early foul trouble for senior forward Dante Cunningham. Cunningham, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, picked up two offensive fouls in the first six minutes of the game, and Wright decided to sit the senior for the remainder of the first half. The score was 7-3 in favor of the Mountaineers at the time.

West Virginia, whose 92 points on the night was a season-high, took advantage of Cunningham’s early absence, sparking many to question why Wright didn’t put the senior back on the floor before the close of the first half.

“Looking back on it, I probably should have [put Cunningham back in],” Wright said. “I kept thinking if we could go in down 12 or 13 we’ll be ok. If I knew the lead was going to get up to 20 then I probably would have.”

At the opening of the second half, Villanova did its best to shift momentum and put itself back into contention. The Wildcats went on a 7-0 run to cut the lead to 13 with 16:39 remaining in the game. West Virginia took only four shots in that span and missed them all. The 13-point deficit would be the closest Villanova would ever come.

After Villanova’s run, Butler once again took over the game, extending the Mountaineer lead as high as 22 points with just over nine minutes remaining. The Wildcats would have one last ditch effort as they tried to pull off the miraculous comeback.

Senior forward Shane Clark and sophomore guards Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher made a series of two-point shots, capped off by a Stokes 3-pointer with 3:55 left to cut the lead to 13 once again. Butler answered with a 3 of his own to seal the victory.

During the final four minutes, foul troubles continued, and Villanova was forced to play without junior guards Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding after they each tallied their fifth personal.

Fisher led the team with 17 points, and Reynolds and Stokes each added 12 of their own.

Even during Villanova’s six-game winning streak, defense, usually one of the team’s strong points, had become a problem. The Wildcats have allowed each of their last four opponents to eclipse 84 points. Wright’s team had allowed at least 80 points this season twice prior: in a loss against Connecticut and in a win over Seton Hall. The Seton Hall matchup, however, went into overtime.

“We definitely have to get better defensively no doubt,” Wright said. “Even in those games that we won, we talked about the need to improve our defense.”

The win was arguably West Virginia’s best to date, since their only other wins against ranked teams came against then-No. 14 Georgetown and No. 13 Ohio State, both on the road. Neither Georgetown nor Ohio State is currently ranked.

Villanova takes on Rutgers tonight at 9 p.m. The Wildcats will look to extend their Pavilion winning streak to 27 consecutive games.