’Nova opens season with two important victories

Larry Flynn

Villanova basketball is back.

And that doesn’t just mean the bleachers of the Pavilion are packed with students in navy and white t-shirts, or that Head Coach Jay Wright is back on the sidelines looking as spiffy as ever.

It means that the high-octane offense, tenacious ball-pressure and team chemistry have returned to campus.

The Wildcats took home a commanding 81-44 win over the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Monday night, igniting the faithful Nova Nation in the Pavilion who had waited almost a year to hear the squeak of blue and white shoes on their home hardwood.

Defensive pressure was the story of the game for the Wildcats. Villanova started in a 1-2-2 full-court zone press, and stuck with the formation for most of the game. This scheme flustered the undersized UMES into committing 22 turnovers over the course of the 40-minute contest. 

“I was pleased with our efforts, especially the way we started that first half,” Wright said. “We played that half like it was against Georgetown or Syracuse.” 

Offensively, it was a confident, balanced attack from the Wildcats, who shot 57 percent and were led by 15 points from sophomore Kris Jenkins.

“Kris is the quiet assassin,” Wright said. “He doesn’t make the spectacular plays, but he makes the right plays. He has a calming influence on the team.”

Wright said he played Jenkins as the third guard in some lineups due to his improved agility over the offseason. To the soft-spoken Jenkins, however, his position in the complex Villanova offense doesn’t matter.

“No matter what position, I just go out there and play Villanova basketball,” Jenkins said. “My teammates believe in me.”

Jenkins’ most significant impact on the team, however, was his defense, as he recorded four steals and had a monster block early in the second half followed by an athletic fastbreak layup at the other end.

Jenkins was one of four Wildcats to reach double digits, as junior Dylan Ennis, junior Daniel Ochefu and senior Darrun Hilliard recorded 10 points apiece.

Ennis was supremely confident throughout the entire game, nailing two 3-pointers in the first few minutes of play to energize his teammates. Wright said Ennis has a much better command for the offense after struggling at times during his first season on the Main Line.

“He has a better understanding of the system,” Wright said. “His abilities are starting to show within the team concept.”

Ennis echoed his coach’s assessment of his development and said he feels much more comfortable in Villanova’s flexible offense.

“Coach tells us not to focus on a position, but to just play basketball,” Ennis said. 

Ochefu nearly recorded a double double with 10 points and nine rebounds. He scored the first points of the game off a half-court bullet pass from JayVaughn Pinkston. Ochefu’s improved hook shot continued to look strong, and he finished the game an efficient 4-5 from the field. 

Sophomore Josh Hart had an underrated contribution to the Wildcats’ win. 

His eight points and three steals don’t tell the full story, for he energized the crowd on multiple occasions, including reaching above the rim to finish a put-back tip-in with 4:20 left in the first half. 

Even the bench mob found themselves on the scoreboard after a late floater from junior walk-on Kevin Rafferty, his first points as a Wildcat.

One of the biggest surprises of the game was the emergence of sophomore Darryl Reynolds. 

The sophomore big man checked into the game with 10:49 left in the first half and scored five points and secured four rebounds in 16 minutes.

In his first play of the game, Reynolds secured a rebound off a free-throw miss, received a post-up on the right block, and was fouled hard on an up-and-under post move. The officials deemed the foul to be flagrant as Reynold calmly stood up, smiled at press-row, and stepped to the line to hit one-of-two free throws. 

Freshman Phil Booth also had a chance to prove himself with extended minutes, tying Hart for the most minutes on the team with 24. Despite having four fouls and three turnovers, Booth contributed with seven points on 75 percent shooting.

“[Reynolds] and [Booth] give us that extra depth we need,” Wright said. “I thought we played guys too many minutes against Lehigh.”

Indeed, the Wildcats’ win over the Maryland Eastern-Shore was revenge for a poor performance Friday against the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. 

Villanova shot a putrid 38 percent from the field and 24 percent from the three-point line, although were ultimately propelled to a victory by 19 points from Ennis.

Villanova will take on Bucknell in the continuation of the Legends Classic on Thursday. When asked about playing against his alma-matter, Wright said it’s always a pleasure to play against the Bison. 

“It’s fun for me,” Wright said. “But we know how good they can be.” 

With looming matchups against Virginia Commonwealth and potentially Michigan, Wright said he only thinks about the next opponent. 

“We really do focus on one game at a time,” Wright said. “To us it’s the next game. It doesn’t matter what happened the game before.”