‘Cats open tournament with victory

Tim Richer

Coming off of a 107-point scoring outburst against Fordham on Monday, the Wildcats were hard-pressed to reach the 100-point mark for a second-consecutive game. Villanova (3-0) came up short of the mark but still held off the Niagara Purple Eagles (1-1) in the first round of the Philly Hoop Group Classic with a 77-62 victory at the Pavilion last night.

Niagara’s visit to the Main Line marked the return of junior guard Bilal Benn, who transferred from Villanova after the ’06-’07 season. Benn had a strong homecoming, playing all 40 minutes of action and tallying 11 points and eight rebounds.

The Wildcats opened the game with a 3-pointer from junior guard Scottie Reynolds and never relinquished the lead. Reynolds led ‘Nova with his highest scoring outburst of the season with 19 points on 4-of-14 shooting from the field and 9-of-10 shooting from the foul line.

Despite leading the entire game, the road was not easy for the Wildcats. Niagara cut into a 13-point Villanova lead late in the first half by going on a 12-3 run to reduce the deficit to as few as four. The ‘Cats entered halftime with a six-point lead.

Villanova came out flat in the second half thanks to foul trouble and the inability to break Niagara’s zone defense. The Purple Eagles got within two points just three minutes into the second half, but that was as close as Niagara would get.

After a missed 3-point attempt by sophomore guard Corey Stokes, Villanova’s defense responded with a steal by Reynolds that led to a transition dunk by junior swingman Reggie Redding. The ‘Cats went up by four and never looked back, outscoring their opponent 37-24 the rest of the way.

“I was happy we gutted it out,” Head Coach Jay Wright said. “It was not a pretty victory but a good one to have in the bank.”

Junior guard Tyrone Lewis led the way for the Purple Eagles with 16 points and four steals. Lewis, Benn and junior guard Rob Garrison caused matchup problems for the Wildcats all game. Villanova was forced to play small-ball with Niagara due to foul woes from its big men. Three ‘Cats fouled out in the contest. Seniors Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark, along with red-shirt sophomore Antonio Peña, had early exists in the game.

Redding made his first start of the season, replacing Stokes, who played with a heavily bandaged left thumb. The junior capitalized on the spot-start by tying a career-high of 14 points. The Philadelphia native last reached the mark in 2007 against Central Florida.

Despite the bruised thumb, Stokes played 27 minutes and scored eight points. It was the first contest of the season in which the he did not register in double-figure scoring.

“I really didn’t want to play him,” Wright said. “However, he was cleared to play. With the foul trouble and their guard-play, we needed him.”

Sophomore guard Corey Fisher picked up the slack for his injured teammate, scoring 15 points to go along with six assists and five rebounds in a team-high 36 minutes. In three games as a starter this season, the Bronx native is now averaging 14 points per game, an increase over his average of nine per contest just a season ago.

The difference in the game was points off of turnovers. The Wildcats had 26 points off of 19 Purple Eagle turnovers. Niagara converted only 13 points off of 15 Villanova turnovers.

“[Villanova’s] best offense is when your offense is bad,” Niagara Head Coach Joe Mihalich said. “They make you pay for your mistakes. That’s what good teams do.”

The victory marked the first time in the young season that all-five starting Wildcats did not score in double figures. Peña was the lone starting Wildcat to finish in single digits with eight points. He was limited to just 21 minutes before fouling out with 7:05 remaining in the game.

With the result, Niagara lost its 18th-straight game against a ranked opponent, dating back to 1984 when the Purple Eagles defeated St. John’s, 62-59.

The Wildcats will look for their fourth-straight victory of the new season with a matchup against the Monmouth Hawks on Nov. 25 in the Pavilion. The game will be the second preliminary game in the tournament.