PARADISE ISLAND, The Bahamas– Villanova junior point guard Jalen Brunson was a star at Stevenson High School, but he had to wait three years to become the leader of this program.
As a freshman, he gave up his McDonald’s All America status, shifting to a shooting guard to play a complimentary role to four year starting senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono for the good of the team when the Wildcats won the national championship.
Last season he was an all-Big East player but he bided his time again while three seniors– Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds– grabbed most of the attention as Villanova finished with the No. 1 ranking in the final regular season AP Top 25 poll.
This year, there has been little question who is the leader on this Top 5 program whenever Villanova is in crisis mode .
Brunson, who was selected as the preseason Big East Player of the Year and is a preseason first team All America, came up huge here yesterday, scoring 25 points as the unbeaten Cats (5-0) rallied from a 46-34 halftime deficit to defeat Tennessee, 85-76, and advance to the championship game of the Battle for Atlantis at the resort ball room Friday. The 6-2 Brunson, who only played 10 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, took the game over in the second half along with 6-7 teammate Mikal Bridges when the Cats outscored the Vols, 59-36, generating their offense off stifling 94-foot defensive pressure with a small quick lineup that unnerved the Tennessee back court. Brunson shot 8-for-16, made all nine free throws, had six assists, just one turnovers and a steal in 29 minutes.
“His teammates know this, we all know this, having a team on his shoulders right now is far more comfortable for him than what he did the last two years,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “The first year was really difficult for him, he took on a role for the good of the team. Last year, he was playing with three seniors. This is what he’s comfortable.”
Brunson is comfortable for the first time since the summer after his senior year when he was selected MVP on Team USA’s U19 team that won the gold medal in the 2015 competition in Crete. “It comes from the way I was brought up, never putting pressure on myself, just always trying to be the best person I can be. My teammates give me confidence. My coach gives me confidence and I put the work i– so I should have confidence in myself. Experience definitely helped– learning fro the three seniors last year, and even learning from Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth. We’re all different leaders, but we’ve trying to keep the Villanova tradition alive.”
The Cats created a seismic 21 point swing in the first seven minutes of the second half and outscored the aggressive Vols, 50-36, in the final 20 minutes, getting to the line 37 times for the game and weathering a storm of foul problems that affected five of the seven players in their rotation. “It helped us a lot, and that’s how we should play throughout the whole game, ” Bridges said. “You saw parts of that today in the beginning of the first half and then the beginning of the second half. We practice that every day trying to play like that for 40 minutes. That’s what we call playing Villanova basketball.”
Bridges, a live body who has NBA first round potential, played just 23 minutes because of foul trouble, but still shot 7-for-10 and contributed 21 points against a bigger, more physical SEC team.”Mikal has never really been the go to guy before,” Wright said. “And he’s thriving in that role.”
Villanova is finding it is at its best when Brunson, Bridges and guard Donte Divicenzo, who had 13 points, 6 rebounds and two steals, are on the floor at the same time with Bridges and one big. “We went with three guards at the start of the second half out of necessity because (6-9 freshman center) Omari Spellman had three personals. “It worked because Donte, Mikal and 6-7 Eric Paschall are undersized but they rebound for us,” Wright said, “They had 20 rebounds for us against Western Kentucky in our opening round game. They combined for 15 rebounds between them today.”
The Cats actually out rebounded Tennessee, 35-32. But they did most of their damage in the open floor, outscoring Tennessee, 12-0, on fast break points. “I love this team,” Wright claimed. “First of all I love them because we have just really good guys. We’ve got some older guys who have been in a lot of big games, so we’re really in a process here, of how long can we keep them in games, how much time can we get the young guys until they start to get it. We got through the first half playing younger guys. It didn’t didn’t look pretty but these guys started the second half fresh. When these guys are in there and they’re fresh, they’re really active defensively and as soon as they get a turnover, they’re so unselfish. They just give the ball ahead to each other, they don’t care who scores. NO matter who got the steal they just give the ball to each other. I love the tenacity and unselfishness.”
Tennessee (3-1), who got 20 points and 8 rebounds from froward Grant Williams, made a late run to cut the Cats’ lead to 79-76 after Admiral Schofield nailed a three with 53 seconds to play.
But Bridges made three of four free throws on the Villanova’s next two possessions to put the game away.