Villanova’s second half offensive attack lifted the ‘Cats above Philadelphia rival LaSalle 74-61 in the final game of Saturday’s Big 5 Classic in Pennsylvania’s Palestra.
Trailing 33-29 at intermission, sophomore Randy Foye scored all 19 of his points in the later minutes, including four from behind the arc to help the ‘Cats to go back on top with a little over 10 minutes left on the clock.
“We did not play smart in the first half and then we were in foul trouble too,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said of his team’s turnaround. “I think in the second half we just got to play, and we played smarter and part of being smart was not fouling and that was a major difference.”
Last season’s Atlantic 10 and Big 5 Rookie-of-the-Year Gary Neal proved to be ‘Nova’s biggest resistance in its comeback, scoring a game-high 32 points for LaSalle. Finishing four from downtown and going 8-9 at the charity stripe, the 6-4 guard combined for over half of the Explorer’s points.
“Gary Neal was unbelievable,” Wright said.
Yet, Neal could not do it all for LaSalle and with teammate Steve Smith the only other Explorer to hit the double-digit mark with 17 points, LaSalle was not able to keep up offensively as the clock wound down.
Only up by one with 6:57 left in the game, the ‘Cats finished the night on the better end of a 19-7 run, as ‘Nova went 9-11 from the line, while LaSalle only managed to connect on 3-7.
The ‘Cats shot 65 percent from the field in the second and ended the night going 51.1 percent overall, while LaSalle’s 35.7 percent in the second put the Explorers’ total at 33.9 percent.
“They made shots in the last seven and a half minutes and we didn’t,” LaSalle head coach Billy Hahn said. “That is the difference. … You are not going to win a lot of games shooting 33 percent from the field. That has been our nemesis so far this season. We have not shot the basketball well and we are going to keep working at it.”
Despite its second half revival, the ‘Cats first half foul trouble still lingered and forced point guard Mike Nardi to sit out much of the second when he committed his fourth foul just under four minutes into the half. The freshman later fouled out with 1:22 left in the game, leaving with only two points and three turnovers.
Although the ‘Cats did find themselves in foul trouble, for the first time this season they had a bench to rely on. Previously short-handed due to injuries and suspensions, Andres Bloch, Chris Charles and Curtis Sumpter all completed their NCAA mandated for violations regarding misuse of a University telephone access code and were cleared to play in Saturday’s contest. Bloch came off the bench to score 12 points, three from behind the arc and also contributed nine rebounds, while Sumpter added 10 points and eight rebounds of his own.
Charles finished the night with eight points and Allan Ray scored 17.
Derrick Snowden, March Austin and Jason Fraser remained sidelined. Snowden was recently cleared by doctors to play, successfully recovered from ACL surgery on his left knee, and began serving his three game suspension Saturday that he must complete before being eligible to play. Austin also still has suspensions yet to serve, while Fraser’s fractured heel keeping him off the court will be reevaluated next week to determine his return.
Beginning to get back to full strength, Wright was pleased with the ‘Cats performance.
“I just think it was a good, gutsy game for our guys,” Wright said. “Right now with some of the stuff we are going through every win is satisfying. I am not being picky. This team has to get through a lot and they have. I like the way they are playing. We just have to keep getting better every game and I feel like we have. That is what I like about this group.”
Saturday’s win lifts ‘Nova’s record to 4-2 and brings LaSalle’s to 1-5 while breaking the series tie between the two schools, giving the ‘Cats a 27-26 edge.
The victory also gives the ‘Cats a 2-0 record in Big 5 play this season, after its opening 73-48 victory over Temple Nov. 21.
‘Nova will face its next challenge to Philadelphia’s college basketball crown when it returns to the famous Palestra to take on Pennsylvania Dec. 9 at 8 p.m.