By JOHN HEALEY
Overcoming an anemic start to the second half, Villanova held on Wednesday night at the Pavilion to defeat Big 5 opponent Penn 77-54.
Darrun Hilliard led the way for Nova, scoring 19 points behind 4-of-6 shooting from downtown. The Wildcats shot just 35 percent from the field but made their living from the charity stripe, converting 31 of 40 free throw attempts en route to the 23-point victory.
It was a tale of two halves for the Wildcats, who came out of the gate looking like they hadn’t skipped a beat after their outstanding play in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Nova jumped out to an 11-0 lead before the Quakers knew what him them, forcing turnovers and refusing to yield any easy baskets. The Wildcats led by as many as 22 in the first half after JayVaughn Pinkston’s two free throws pushed the lead to 31-9 at the 8:06 mark.
Over the next 4:30, however, the Quakers crept back in the game behind the sharp shooting of Miles Jackson-Cartwright, who hit four 3-pointers during this span to cut it to a 35-24 deficit. The senior guard finished with 17 points and was the lone reason Penn hung around as long as it did, but just three of these points came in the second half when the Quakers needed them most.
He didn’t receive much help from his teammates, either, as usual double-digit scorers Fran Dougherty and Tony Hicks combined for just four points.
“The way they were pressing, I just wanted to be aggressive,” Jackson-Cartwright said, explaining his scoring outburst. “Fran and Tony aren’t going to have too many [low-scoring] games like that.”
Nova took a comfortable 46-28 lead into the half but emerged ice-cold from the field, failing to score a bucket until Hilliard’s layup after more than 10 minutes ticked off the clock.
“You get up by 15 and then you just settle for outside shots,” Jay Wright said, expressing disappointment with his team’s second-half effort. “And we just didn’t hit them.”
Luckily for the Wildcats, the combination of frequent free-throw line visits and Penn’s inability to capitalize on the offensive end meant that their lead was never in serious peril.
It looked like it may have been, though, when Julian Harrell’s jumper with 7:09 left to play closed the gap to a 56-48 deficit. The Quakers, who had been within 12 points of the lead since early in the half, were poised to make a final run at the seemingly depleted Wildcats.
But it never happened. Nova promptly pieced together a 12-0 run capped off by a Ryan Arcidiacono three-pointer (his first and only points of the game) and put to rest any thoughts of a Quaker comeback. Penn ran out of steam and, surprisingly, ended up being outscored by the Wildcats in the second half.
James Bell scored 14 points and added eight rebounds in the win.
Penn’s Darien Nelson-Henry (12 points) was the lone teammate to accompany Jackson-Cartwright in double figures, although freshman Tony Bagtas also caused problems for Nova in his surprise starting position at point guard. Bagtas dished out nine assists and consistently broke Nova’s press, giving his team a fighting chance against the Wildcats.
“I thought our guys did a pretty decent job of trying to keep us in the game,” said Penn coach Jerome Allen, reflecting on his team’s admirable effort against a better opponent. “They gave us a solid collective effort.”
Wright was not particularly pleased with his team’s performance, but noted that wins in the Big 5 series never come easy.
“You’ve got to give credit to them,” Wright said. “That was just a rough Big 5 game.”