Villanova’s secret weapon? Its freshman

Glance at the box score and it’s only natural to think the reason Butler didn’t do it to Villanova again Saturday was because Donte DiVincenzo went off for a career high 30 points while Jalen Brunson dropped 27.

And close behind you’ll note Omari Spellman chipping in 10 while pulling down 11 rebounds.

As much as they accomplished, though, a big reason the Wildcats overcame a sluggish start to grind down the Bulldogs 86-75 were three players who scored a combined nine points and pulled down 12 rebounds. In their case, the contributions freshmen Collin Gillespie (5) Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (two apiece) made go beyond the numbers.

“I’m so proud of our freshmen,” said head coach Jay Wright, whose 23-2 club may or may not fall from the top of the rankings after losing to St. John’s. “We’re a little bit in survival mode right here. It’s not fair to expect them to execute like the older guys. We kept things simple because they just haven’t had the practice time on the court. It wasn’t pretty today but we survived it.”

It was tough enough on the depth chart when starter Phil Booth broke his shooting hand two weeks ago against Providence. A week later Eric Paschall hit the deck vs. Seton Hall and seemed fine until complaining of headaches a few days later. That’s kept him in concussion protocol and out of action for the past two games, forcing the three freshmen into extended duty. Considering first Gillespie, then Samuels also missed chunks of time earlier with hand fractures, it’s really put a strain on a roster not very deep to begin with.  

“I can relate big time,” said DiVincenzo, who missed all but eight games of Nova’s 2016 championship season with a broken foot. “When I was hurt I could still dribble the ball and shoot the ball. They couldn’t do that and other things, but I commend them because they have a great attitude and did everything we needed.”

So does Brunson, who did much of his damage inside against the 17-9 Bulldogs, who were bidding for their fourth straight win over Nova.

“They’re playing really well and opening eyes every day,” said Brunson, who scored seven while DiVincenzo had 11 as the ‘Cats turned a 38-30 late first half deficit into a 51-42 lead with 14:53 remaining, then held off every Butler surge.  “They’ve definitely responded and at the same time they’re wanting to learn and get better. They’re bringing it.”

As for those who assumed the Wildcats would be bringing it a little bit more against the one team that’s had their number, not so.

“We’re going to get every team’s best shot, whether we want it or  not,” said DiVincenzo, who scored 20 after intermission, offsetting spectacular efforts from Butler’s Kelan Martin (30 including eight threes) and Kamar Baldwin (25). “We didn’t do anything different than we did for St John’s. Just because they (Butler) have beaten us we didn’t have any more hype.  But a loss kind of makes it obvious we have to get back to playing ‘Villanova basketball.’ We were missing two amazing players, but the young guys stepped up.”

Wright says it will be a few weeks before Booth returns and he’s not quite sure what to expect with Paschall, as the ‘Cats head to a killer part of the schedule.  Even at full strength they knew they’d be tested at Providence Wednesday, followed by a first place showdown at Xavier Saturday.  Then after taking on DePaul it’s back to the road to face Creighton and Seton Hall.

“When we go on the road it’s us against the world,” said DiVincenzo, who was coming off the bench as sixth man until Booth went down. “We have that mentality to stick together no matter what happens.”

Even as undermanned as they are, Wright knows his team won’t back down.  

“It’s leadership,” he said, trying to explain their success. “Guys like Jalen and Mikal (Bridges) do a great job with the development of the younger guys. And it’s our freshman. It speaks a lot to how they’ve improved and how they’ve endured.”

You couldn’t tell by the boxscore, except for one thing: The final score.

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