VILLANOVA, Pa. The theme of Villanovas five straight wins heading into the New Year and a rigorous Big East schedule was defense. The Wildcats allowed an average of 59.4 points in that five-game span and won by 11 points per game.
Wednesday nights Big East opener was markedly different, but the fact that Villanova was able to gut out a 98-86 overtime win over St. Johns despite starting poorly and nearly collapsing late in regulation shows that perhaps this Wildcats team can make noise in their stacked conference. Sure, Villanova went just 5-13 in the Big East last season, but that team didnt have Ryan Arcidiacono.
The freshman point guard led the way for Villanova Wednesday at The Pavilion with a career-high 32 points in his Big East debut (see Instant Replay). Arcidiacono made seven threes, 11 of 13 free throws, and while the rest of his teammates were turning the ball over as if it was their intention in the first half, Arcidiacono didnt lose the ball until his 31st minute of action.
His hot shooting kept Villanova in the game in the first half, when a 6-for-21 start from the field and 13 turnovers could have taken the Wildcats out of it.
A new career high in a raucous home atmosphere in his first taste of Big East basketball how could it get any better for an 18-year-old?
Honestly, I just dream for a win, Arcidiacono said after helping Villanova to its sixth straight win and a 10-4 record. First game in the Big East, I didnt want to force too many things. It was a dream come true that we won the game in overtime and battled for 45 minutes.
Indeed, Arcidiacono avoided forcing the issue. He took 15 shots but passed up multiple open looks in an attempt to get his teammates involved. If he was more interested in testing out his hot hand, Arcidiacono may have gone for 40.
But two of his sophomore teammates executed offensively when it counted most, and a de facto three-man attack gave Villanova the 15-3 overtime advantage it needed to win by 12 after playing to a 40-minute stalemate.
JayVaughn Pinkston had a season-high 26 points, and Darrun Hilliard had 14, thanks to perfect shooting from the charity stripe. Hilliard made all seven of his free throw attempts, most of which came at crucial junctures. With Villanova down three with 1:31 remaining in the second half, Hilliard channeled his inner-Andre Miller by faking a three, sending his defender airborne and drawing contact for three foul shots. He made all of them to knot the score at 81.
Hilliard then got Nova started in overtime, making two free throws, then stealing the ball and laying it up on the ensuing possession to give the Wildcats a four-point lead they wouldnt relinquish.
But what head coach Jay Wright recognized the most was Hilliards defense. He had four steals and helped set the tone in overtime, in which St. Johns didnt score its first point until 41 seconds remained.
Darrun made a lot of important defensive plays, Wright said. We got dialed in defensively in overtime, which we have to learn how to do for 40 minutes. In the first half, we didnt bring it defensively. But it was really good in overtime.
Pinkston added three more steals, and he got to the line 13 times. As a team, Villanova made 34 of 42 free throws. Its the most Wrights team has attempted since Jan. 11, 2010 against Louisville.
We know how much we need him, Wright said of Pinkston. I thought he had about 12 minutes of really good, consistent play. Were going to go as he goes a lot. In the first half he didnt have the intensity, but when the game is on the line he's there for you.
Pinkston was right there, drawing contact and getting to the line for easy points. That wasnt lost on St. Johns head coach Steve Lavin. We played zone for 45 minutes and they shot 42 free throws ... that's probably a first in my coaching career, he quipped.
The Wildcats had a chance to win in regulation after clutch free throws gave them an 83-81 advantage. But Red Storm leading scorer DAngelo Harrison, as he did all night, answered by making two foul shots with 4.5 seconds to play.
Harrison, who entered averaging 20.9 points on the season without once exceeding 27, had a career-high 36 points on 11-for-21 shooting.
Lavin remarked that Harrison is right up there with the best shooters hes ever coached, including Jason Kapono and Tracy Murray, who both went on to play in the NBA.
Harrison was incredible, Wright added. He scored 36 points, but I thought James Bell did a good job on him in the second half. We know we have to get better. They shot 47 percent from the field, 50 percent from three, and a guy we came into the game trying to shut down got 36.
But the key was that Villanova was able to clamp down on Harrison in overtime, when he missed his first two shots and also turned the ball over. St. Johns may be the youngest team in the country, with 10 freshmen and sophomores, but Villanova still had to execute at the end of both halves and in overtime to hold off a hungry team that pushed the ball at a furious pace.
These kids have guts, Wright said of his team. Weve done this a number of times this year where we've given up leads, we look like were losing it, and guys just step up and make big plays. This team's got guts, I like that.
He liked it enough to eschew traditional coach-speak after the game and look at the six-game winning streak as a whole instead of the common one-game-at-a-time approach.
We try not be affected by the winning streak, we try to live in the moment, Wright began, but our fans probably need that ... to see six wins in a row and a Big East win at home.
E-mail Corey Seidman at email@example.com