Wildcats win ‘Holy War’ 90-62


Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

Junior guard Phil Booth was 6-12 in shooting, scoring 17 points.

Mike Keeley

Fresh off a secure 90-62 victory on Wednesday night against Penn in the Big Five opener, the Wildcats entered Saturday’s game with the goal of maintaining their undefeated record in another Big Five clash. This time around, the obstacle to the Wildcats improving to 8-0 and moving towards a record fifth straight outright Big Five Championship were the St. Joseph’s Hawks.

“I learned from older guys when I got here how important this [matchup] is,” junior forward Mikal Bridges said.

Just as in the previous five editions of the Holy War, the Wildcats emerged victorious over the Hawks, 94-53. This is the fifth year in a row the game has been decided by double digits.

“They’ve got two starters out and we played great,” Head Coach Jay Wright said. “That’s the bottom line.”

The Wildcats altered their starting lineup for the first time this season, with Wright replacing freshman sophomore Omari Spellman with sophomore guard and usual sixth-man Dante DiVincenzo. This was a one-time switch made due to Spellman very narrowly missing a goal on his weight and body fat reduction plan.

“His body fat was perfect, he was 1.2 pounds over,” Wright said. “And I just told him at the beginning we just gotta stick to this. I’m not mad at him. He started the second half, he’ll start the next game.”

Even without a traditional big-man on the floor, the Wildcats showed their ability to have a presence in the defensive paint, as Bridges swatted away an attempted layup off the tip. Three minutes into the game Spellman entered into the game for junior guard Phil Booth, revealing he had simply been demoted to sixth man. Spellman announced this entrance into the game with a bang, blocking a Hawks’ layup from behind off the backboard. Perhaps motivated to prove himself after his benching, Spellman finished with a double-double, 16 points and 11 rebounds.

The Hawks kept the game close early, the score 24-20 through the first 14 minutes. This was a credit mainly to their defense, as they held the Wildcats to 2-10 shooting from three during this period.

“They really out-scrapped us early, they got loose balls,” Wright said. “We said in the huddle, we’ve gotta weather this.”

From there on the Wildcats began to distance themselves from their opponents and the score was 41-27 at halftime. The team’s ability to create this gap was mainly thanks to the discovery of their three-point stroke with a three from Bridges, who lead the Wildcats in scoring with 18, and two each from Booth and Spellman coming in the last four minutes of the half. This was evident in the team’s halftime three point shooting percentage, with it sitting at 43.8 percent. Wright maintained a relatively short rotation in the first half, utilizing only eight players despite the growing lead near the end.

The Wildcats stayed hot coming out of the break, shooting 6-7 and 4-4 from deep, orchestrating an 18-4 run. Bridges was monumental throughout this run, shooting 4-5 and 3-3 from deep.

“He’s worked hard on this since he came to Villanova,” Wright said. “We didn’t need him to do it as much [in previous years]. This year we need him to do it, he knows it. He’s got tremendous range because of his size. We’ve gotta get more threes for him.”

Booth also had a strong game as he continues to work his way back from the knee injury that cut short his 2016-17 season, as he matched Bridges’ 6-12 shooting and scored 17 points.

“I’m getting there, everyday is just another day towards [recovery],” Booth said. “Physically I feel great.”

The Wildcats hit a record-high 19 three pointers, at one point hitting ten straight.

“When we go out there we don’t think about that,” Bridges said. “It just happens from our defense. The defensive end helps us out a lot getting our open threes.”

With the lead extended into the twenties, Wright started giving more minutes to freshman guard Collin Gillespie, freshman forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and freshman forward Jermaine Samuels after they played five, four and zero minutes and the first half, respectively.  This was obviously an attempt to get a look at what the freshmen are able to do, with all four on the roster playing together for much of the second half. Gillespie, Cosby-Roundtree and Samuels finished scoring with nine, two and one each.

“[St. Joe’s] was playing freshmen, [so] we were playing freshmen,” Wright said.

This Tuesday, the Wildcats will visit Madison Square Garden for a primetime matchup against the defeated NCAA Tournament finalists Gonzaga Bulldogs. This will be the Wildcats first visit to the Mecca since last season’s 74-60 BIG EAST Tournament final victory against Creighton.