VILLANOVA, Pa. — Coming off a big tournament win at the Battle 4 Atlantis, Villanova was looking for a bigger challenge when it returned to start Big 5 play.
It didn’t get one from Penn.
Using their deadly accurate long-range shooting, the no. 14 Wildcats (8-0) started off their game against the Quakers (2-5) on an 11-0 run and didn’t look back from there, winning 77-54 after withstanding a spate of mini-rallies from the Red and Blue.
It seemed as if Penn wasn’t ready for Villanova coach Jay Wright’s motion offense at first, as the Wildcats drove the ball seemingly at will and then kicked out for wide-open three-pointers that Red and Blue defenders just couldn’t close out to.
Villanova hit six treys before the game was even 10 minutes old, as junior guard Darrun Hilliard hit his first three shots — all from distance — to stake the Wildcats to a 31-9 lead.
Penn couldn’t get anything going on the offensive end early either, as freshman Tony Bagtas had an up-and-down performance in his first-ever start at point guard from the Red and Blue.
Though he never really found his shot on the evening, finishing 3-7 from the floor, Bagtas was able to drive and find open men as he logged heavy minutes, tallying nine assists.
“I felt a little bit more comfortable as the game went on,” he said.
“I didn’t even see [Bagtas] on film,” Wright said. “And that kid came in and did a hell of a job. He controlled the ball, controlled the tempo … we couldn’t do anything with him.”
And though senior guard Miles Cartwright found his jump shot early, scoring 14 of Penn’s 28 first-half points on 5-13 shooting, his efforts were hamstrung by a frontcourt that couldn’t stop collecting fouls and surprisingly weak performances from stalwarts Tony Hicks and Fran Dougherty.
Hicks and Dougherty combined for four points on 1-10 shooting, leaving Cartwright alone to step up and handle the shooting load.
“Fran and Tony aren’t gonna have many games like that,” Cartwright said. “But whenever they need me to score, I’m ready to do it.”
Penn’s zone defense finally adjusted to Wright’s motion plays in the second half, holding Villanova without a field goal for the first ten minutes of the period and driving the Wildcats to frustration.
“We didn’t get the ball inside,” Wright said. “We just settled for jump shots, every possession. “
But forwards Henry Brooks, Greg Louis, and Darien Nelson-Henry all wilted under the relentless inside pressure of Wildcats forward JayVaughn Pinkston, who collected four crucial offensive rebounds and earned 14 foul shots, converting 11.
“I just was trying to get us some easy baskets down there and get to the free throw line,” Pinkston said.
Penn was able to draw within eight with 7:09 to go, but with Louis fouled out and Nelson-Henry and Brooks each playing with four fouls, the Quakers’ lack of a frontcourt presence proved deadly when it mattered most.
“We’ve gotta get away from playing with our hands and do our work early,” Penn coach Jerome Allen said. “But I’m confident these guys will get better.”
Given enough chances on the offensive glass, Villanova begin to find those wide-open threes from the first half again, and by the time sophomore guard Ryan Arcidiacono scored his only basket of the night, a trey from the right elbow to make it 68-48 again with 4:01 left, it was all but over.
With a game against NEC favorite Wagner coming up on Saturday, the Quakers know they have to go back to the basics to fix the problems that have plagued them all year.
“You can’t play Division 1 basketball and continue to give teams opportunity after opportunity after opportunity,” Allen said. “We’re just gonna try to look at the film and use it as a learning tool to get better.”
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