PARADISE ISLAND, The Bahamas– Villanova has made this island its own version of paradise, defeating Northern Iowa, 64-50, here yesterday to win its second Battle for Atlantis tournament in the past five years.
The unbeaten, fifth-ranked Wildcats have been magical in November tournaments, winning five straight and allowing coach Jay Wright to experiment with his lineups to come up with the best combination and find out how his Big East team deals with adversity.
No one on the Philadelphia Main Line is complaining with the results. The 6-0 Cats won Battle in 2013, the 2014 Legends Classic, the 2015 preseason NIT and the Charleston Classic last season before stepping up to defeat Western Kentucky, Tennessee and Northern at the Atlantis ball room.
“There’s a challenge coming here,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Everything’s taken care of for you here. You’re treated like a king. But this is paradise. There’s a lot of temptations here. And if you get caught up in that and that’s more import to you than being a good basketball player and teammate, that can affect you.
“These guys and guys we’ve had over the years, they’re really good players. They’re intelligent and they know this is an opportunity to play great competition– and they take it very seriously.”
This year’s Battle was rated the No. 1 early season tournament by Sports Illustrated, ahead of the two PK 80 tournaments in Portland. But the fact second-ranked Arizona and 18th-ranked Big Ten contender are playing for seventh place after first round upset losses in this eight-team field speaks volumes about how competitive the games were.
The two biggest stabilizing factors in Villanova’s victory in this three day tournament were junior point guard Jalen Brunson and 6-7 red shirt junior forward Mikal Bridges. Bridges, whose NBA stock soars every time he takes the floor, finished with an active 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds as the Cats led most of the way and used an 8-0 run in the final four minutes after the Panthers (5-2) cut the lead to 51-46 on Spencer Haldeman three with 5:33 left. But red shirt junior guard Phil Booth nailed a three, red shirt junior forward Eric Paschall scored inside and then Bridges hit a three-point jumper to push the lead up to 14 with 2:03 left.
“It gives us great confidence right now knowing that we’ve played pretty well as a team,” Bridges said. “But it can also hurt if you get too complacent.”’
Brunson, a first team preseason All American and the Big East preseason Player of the Year, contributed 16 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists and was selected the tournament’s MVP for his play over the course of the tournament. Brunson came up particularly big in the Cats’ 85-76 semi-final victory over Tennessee when they rallied from a 46-34 halftime deficit, scoring 25 points and taking over the game in second half.
“The thing I learned from this tournament is that we don’t quit,” Brunson said. “I think we really got tested in this tournament.”
The Cats were not just a two man team against Northern. Their supporting cast stepped up. Booth, one of the heroes of Villanova’s 2016 national championship game against North Carolina, scored 12, coming back from a knee injury that sidelined him last season. And Paschall finally found his way into the low post where he belongs, scoring 10 points and grabbing 5 rebounds. ”
Villanova’s defensive pressure did the rest, limiting the Panthers to 42 percent shooting, 6 for 23 from the three and never let them shoot a free throw in a game that only had 20 personal fouls. The Cats have enough experience to constantly switch on every possession. “They’re so good, so physical. They go inside to (6-10) Bennett Koch really good. We just said, “Make them earn it. Don’t foul them. I wish they listened to me on everything like that.’ That’s just really good defense. We have a guy like Eric Paschall who can guard Koch in the post, then switch out and guard a wing. Sometimes we had Phil or Jalen in the post fronting Koch. It’s a mismatch. but it’s not a mismatch to us.”
“We just didn’t have quite enough offense today,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson admitted. “I love this team. And we’re going to get better. And we’re going to be right there when it counts.”
As if the Cats needed any extra inspiration, they found it from 10-year old Asher Davies from Canby, Oregon, who met Wright before the game and sat at the end of the bench as part of the Make-A-Wish program. Davies was recognized during a first half timeout.
“I know he’s been struggling with an illness,” Wright said. “Amd then we’re getting ready for the game, we think it’s all about us, it put us in a really good perspective before the game.”