Wildcats sneak past Illinois in Jimmy V Classic

Greg Habeeb

’Nova and Illinois went toe to toe again for the second time in the last few months, although this time instead of five star point guard recruit Jalen Brunson on the line, an actual on-court victory was at stake.

Just as it did in September, the result went the Wildcats way, as ’Nova was able to dispatch the Fightin’ Illini 73-59 on Tuesday night’s Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

With the win, the Wildcats remain undefeated at 9-0, while Illinois falls to 6-2.

Senior guard Dylan Ennis led Villanova with 18 points and four assists, while from junior forward Daniel Ochefu chipped in with 12 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. 

The duo combined for 22 second half points. Ennis, who leads the team in scoring this season, also added an assist and a pair of steals.

’Nova was able to lean on a balanced team effort yet again, as five players scored at least eight points. The Wildcats entered the game with seven players averaging at least 7.6 points per game.

“We have great guys,” Ennis said. “It’s not just one guy taking over the game.” 

Sophomore guard Josh Hart continued his strong play this season with seven rebounds from his backcourt position, three of which were off of the offensive glass. Despite the lopsided final score, Illinois was game for much of the night before ’Nova pulled away in the final six minutes. 

The Wildcats led by as much as 10 in the first half, though the Fightin’ Illini lived up to their mascot’s moniker, chipping away at the double digit deficit, eventually tying the score on a 3-pointer by Ahmad Starks with 16:18 to go in the second half.

“They did a really good job at the end of the first half and at the middle of the second half of taking us out of our stuff,” Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright said.

Villanova responded with an 8-0 run, capped off by a thunderous slam, to retake the lead 46-38 with 12:54 to play.  

Again, Illinois battled back to tie the game at 50 on a 3-pointer by Aaron Cosby with 8:32 remaining in the second half. It was Ennis to the rescue from that point on. He drilled a pair 3-pointers in consecutive possessions en route to 12 second half points.

 “I never thought about taking over the game, I was just trying to do well for the team” Ennis said. “I just played Villanova basketball.”

Wright noted how Ennis’ reliance on his brain has been a big part of the Canada native’s step forward this season.

“He’s a very intelligent person. As a basketball player he really enjoyed using his athleticism, his speed, his aggressiveness and he didn’t appreciate his basketball IQ,” Wright said. “[Ennis’] basketball IQ has grown incredibly. He picks things up really quick,” Wright added. “He made some great decisions today.”

Villanova set out to shut down Illinois’ top 15 offense by taking their star guard, senior Rayvonte Rice, out of the game. 

They succeeded, holding Rice, who came into the matchup averaging 17.4 points per game, to only 10 points on 5 of 15 shooting. As a result, sophomore guard Malcolm Hill was the focal point of Illinois’ offense, scoring 14 of his game high 20 points in the first half.

’Nova also imposed their defensive will on the turnover battle. The Wildcats ball hawking defense forced 14 turnovers from a normally stingy Illini offense, which came into to the game averaging just over nine giveaways per game.

 “Our momentum comes from our defense, that’s what gets us riled up,” Ennis said. “No matter who we play, we play the same way: hard, smart, together.”

The Wildcats hit their stride early in the first half when a JayVaughn Pinkston layup keyed a 15-4 run which spanned nearly seven minutes and gave Villanova a 10 point lead before Illinois senior forward Nnanna Egwu drained a three with 9:49 to go in the period. 

Illinois cut the lead to three with a layup by Rice with 5:30 to go in the first half. 

The Wildcats, who appeared to have shaken their 3-point shooting woes by shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc over their previous three games, sunk back into bad habits. 

’Nova missed all five of their 3-point attempts in the first half, and finished the game shooting 33 percent from downtown. 

Fortunately for the ’Cats, they made 29 of their 41 two point shots, a highly efficient 71 percent.

Wright acknowledged that his team still has room to grow despite their spotless start, but ultimately noted the gravity of the victory against a storied Illinois program. “They’re well coached and a good team, and that’s why it’s a good win,” Wright stated.