By Kevin Sweeney
Some crazy things have happened in the storied history of Philadelphia’s Big 5 rivalry series, especially in games at the Palestra.
For much of tonight’s battle between La Salle and #1 and defending national champions Villanova, it looked like we would be witnessing yet another incredible Palestra moment.
The Explorers gave Villanova all they could handle, but in the end, the Wildcats hung on for an 89-79 victory Tuesday night at the Palestra. Sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson had a career-high 26 points for the Wildcats, who move to 9-0 on the season.
From the outset, La Salle was able to gain energy from a raucous Explorer crowd and seized momentum in the early going. Neither team was able to gain any sort of separation from one another for the majority of the first half, as the teams continued to trade buckets. Brunson hit multiple big buckets to keep the La Salle crowd at bay, but the energy in the building grew with every made bucket by the Explorers.
A big sequence came at the end of the half. A 15-6 run by the Wildcats gave them an 8 point lead with under a minute to play in the half, but a pair of buckets in the final 15 seconds of the half by La Salle guard Pookie Powell cut their deficit to a manageable four at halftime.
The Explorers found themselves in a danger zone as the second half began, as Villanova began to take control of the game. The Wildcats were able to extend a double digit lead, even taking a 13-point advantage on a triple by Mikal Bridges with 7:24 to go in the game. However, there was no quit in the Explorers, as they chipped away at the deficit as the game wore down to its waning moments. It was the guard duo of Powell and Jordan Price who made play after play for La Salle, and a 3-pointer by Price brought the score to 77-73 with just 1:19 to play in the ballgame. The comeback would fall short though, as Villanova was able to break the press with a few baseball passes that led to layups or fouls.
Brunson was one of 4 Wildcats in double figures, with Josh Hart posting 21 and Bridges adding 16. Powell’s 27 points was a career high, while B.J Johnson had 13 points and 8 rebounds.
One thing that was clear about tonight’s performance by La Salle is that they will be factors in the A-10 race, which looks wide open at this point. On the other side, Villanova’s choice to play tough teams on the road in the non-conference is commendable and should only help the Wildcats in conference play, when they have to make trips to tough environments like Hinkle Fieldhouse (Butler), Cintas Center (Xavier), and CenturyLink Center (Creighton).