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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Saturday / November 18.
  • Take Five: No. 1 Villanova 61, No. 12 Virginia 59

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    By MIKE McCURRY

    PHILADELPHIA—From Monday thru Saturday, the AP Poll’s Top-11 teams posted a combined 10-10 record. So it only would have been fitting if college basketball’s most chaotic week of the season culminated in No. 12 Virginia downing No. 1 Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday.

    The defending national champions had their backs up against the wall, trailing by as many as 13 in the second half, before usual suspects Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins came alive. The Wildcats (20-2) outscored Virginia (16-4) by a 24-10 margin over the final 9:42, with a Donte DiVincenzo tip-in as time expired providing the difference in a 61-59 Villanova victory.

    This team just loves hitting buzzer-beaters against ACC foes, huh?

    Villanova narrowly avoided a two-game losing streak—Marquette ended Tuesday’s affair on a 19-4 run to shock the Wildcats—while Virginia fell to 1-29 all-time versus top-ranked opponents.

    In the first edition of Take Five on ZAGSBLOG, here are five thoughts from Sunday’s thriller, which had a late-round NCAA Tournament feel to it.

    1. Mikal Bridges was the best player on the floor.
    With Hart and Jenkins combining to shoot 4-of-19 from the field, Villanova needed somebody to carry a heavier burden on offense. Bridges stepped up in that regard, tallying 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting. The 6-foot-7 sophomore is averaging 16.7 points over his last three contests.

    More than putting the ball in the basket, Bridges had a sensational all-around floor game, adding 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 blocks.

    Defensively, he played a large role by helping hold Virginia’s London Perrantes to 4 points (2-of-11 from the floor)—affecting the All-American candidate with his length and athleticism—and manning the top of Villanova’s 1-2-2 three-quarters press that head coach Jay Wright put on after makes.

    “He was awesome,” said Wright of Bridges, the Wildcats’ Swiss Army Knife. “He did all the little things. He made big buckets, big stops, blocked shots, steals—he was incredible, man.”

    DraftExpress currently projects Bridges as the No. 21 overall pick in the 2018 Draft.

    1. Kris Jenkins rediscovered his stroke at the most opportune time for Villanova.
    Entering the second half Sunday, Jenkins was 0-fer the week, having missed all 15 of his field goal attempts (including 12 three-pointers) up to that point.

    Needing to see the ball go thru the net in the worst way, Big Smoove finally announced his presence at the 7:23 mark of the second half following a DiVincenzo steal.

    Moments later, Jenkins flared out to the top of the key on an inbounds play, nailing another triple.

    His personal 6-0 run cut Virginia’s lead to one, bringing the vast majority of the 20,907 fans—the largest crowd Wells Fargo Center has ever hosted for a college game—to its feet.

    Cavaliers’ head coach Tony Bennett knew it was only a matter of time before Jenkins (and Hart) got cooking, though Bennett thinks part of the seniors’ resurgence was self-inflicted.

    “We kind of let them get going when we had some turnovers that led to some transition buckets, and then they got to the line,” Bennett said.

    Indeed, Villanova scored 11 points on Virginia’s 6 second-half turnovers while outscoring UVA 8-0 in transition during the latter frame.

    The Wildcats also benefited from converting on 20 free-throws, which not only matched a season-high but were 17 more than Virginia made (3-3).

    1. Virginia needs to be recognized as a legitimate national title contender.
    Do we really need to see Bennett take Virginia to the Final Four before considering the Cavaliers as one of the half-dozen or so candidates that could cut down the nets in Phoenix this April?

    Per KenPom, UVA has the nation’s 15th-highest offensive efficiency and 4th-highest defensive efficiency. Don’t let the fact that Virginia plays at the country’s second slowest tempo fool you. Despite not being littered with five-star prospects and future NBA stars, this is one of the nation’s few elite squads.

    It all starts and ends with Bennett’s trademark Pack Line defense, which in layman’s terms invites dribble penetration toward help defenders and encourages challenged jump shots over the top.

    Hart, the frontrunner for National Player of the Year who thrives on getting into the lane, saw firsthand on Sunday how difficult the Pack Line is to dissect.

    In the first half, Villanova made 4-of-22 shots, including 1-of-10 from behind the arc, for an ugly 0.81 points per possession.

    Were it not for the Wildcats’ blistering second half—72.2% shooting, a 6-of-6 mark from distance, and 1.3 points per trip—and Perrantes enduring arguably his worst game of the season—Virginia might have appeared as a No. 1 seed in a few Bracketology forecasts come Monday.

    1. Ty Jerome had his national coming out party.
    Jerome, a 6-foot-5 freshman out of New Rochelle (NY), entered Sunday averaging 2.4 points per game in 9.4 minutes of action.

    After breaking out to the tune of 15 points—the first double-digit scoring contest of his career—in 24 minutes against Villanova, Jerome may start appearing a tad higher on opponents’ scouting reports.

    “He’s a gamer,” Bennett said of Jerome. “He doesn’t wow you with his athleticism—good size, good feel, got off to a great start knocking down those threes.”

    The emergence of Jerome, who did score 8 key points in 14 minutes on Tuesday at Notre Dame, should provide a welcoming breather to Perrantes, who can now play off-ball at times.

    Aside from Jerome, Marial Shayok (14 points) and Isaiah Wilkins (12 points, 8 rebounds on 6-of-6 shooting) were offensive bright spots for the Cavaliers.  

    1. We need more non-conference games like Virginia-Villanova this time of year.
    If you had to check the calendar a few times during Sunday’s game, you’re not alone.

    It’s late January, though the electricity inside Wells Fargo Center suggested an Elite-8 matchup.

    “The environment was just crazy,” said Hart. “It definitely felt like March.”

    Between Virginia-Villanova and Kansas-Kentucky on Saturday, marquee non-conference pairings this time of year ought to become the norm, with football stepping away from the spotlight.

    Not only do the fans profit via spectacular matchups, but the teams do as well.

    “I hope it was good for both of us,” Bennett said.

    Photo: @FOXSports

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