PARADISE ISLAND, The Bahamas– Villanova established itself as a national program here four years ago when the Wildcats upset Kansas, then defeated Iowa to win the Battle for Atlantis and jump into the AP Top 15.
This year, they made a return trip to these islands as a Top 5 team with Final Four aspirations.
But it took a little time before the Wildcats, who were coming off two straight 100 point games, looked the part. Nova finally came out of a prolonged shooting funk to defeat a young Western Kentucky team, 66-58, to advance to the semi-finals of Battle against Tennessee Thursday.
Junior preseason All America point guard Jalen Brunson scored 18 points and junior forward Mikal Bridges had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 3 of seven blocked shots for the Cats, who brought 700 of their fans with them. But it was 6-5 red shirt sophomore guard Donte Divincenzo who came off the bench to win this game, scoring 12 of his 14 points in the second half when Villanova (4–0), which did not have a transition basket in the first half, turned up its defense, making seven steals and converting nine Hilltopper turnovers into 13 fast break points and putting the game away with a 12-2 spurt with their defense to take a 51-37 lead with 7:22 to play. Divincenzo, who has a freakish vertical leap, is rapidly turning into an NBA prospect who may have a bigger upside than any guard on Jay Wright’s roster.
“We really have six starters,” Wright said. “Donte is willing to come off the bench for us. He’s one of those “Whatever you need, coach type of guys.”’
Divincenzo shot 6-for 10 and had three assists in 28 minutes for Villanova, which came to life in the second half when it shot 62.5 percent. If Brunson, who will graduate in three years; and the long-armed 6-7 Bridges both declare for the NBA draft, he will be the poster child for Villanova basketball next year.
He is already their instant offense.
It is hard to know what to make of this Villanova team. On paper, they look like they look better than last year’s group, which won the Big East and was ranked No. 1 in final regular season AP Top 25 and could go deep into March. But they still run hot and cold shooting threes. They shot 7 for 33 from beyond the arc in their opener against Columbia. And shot just 7 for 22 against Western (2-2), which only had seven players suited up with three freshmen starters but still confused the Cats by constantly shifting zone defenses in the first half and forced them into 15 turnovers. Guard Darius Thompson scored 15 points for Western, which was missing its two best players, 6-6 freshman guard Josh Anderson and 6-9 redshirt sophomore Moustapha Diagne.