Nearly two weeks after Providence ended Villanova's 22-game Big East winning streak, the Wildcats got revenge with a 72-60 victory against the Friars on Saturday at the Dunkin' Donuts Center.
The third-ranked Wildcats' strength this season has been defense. They allowed the seventh-fewest points per game (61.1) coming into Saturday, and that unit held Providence's offense in check for most of the game.
The Friars (18-6) were held to 33.3 percent shooting from the field, actually connecting on a higher percentage from three-point range (37.5), and had to dig out of a hole right from the start when Villanova jumped out to a 10-0 lead.
Making this win more impressive for the Wildcats (20-3) is they didn't shoot great overall, connecting on 45.2 percent of their attempts. But their defense made life difficult for Providence's shooters, and they were excellent at creating second-chance opportunities with 11 offensive rebounds.
On the Fox Sports 1 broadcast, announcer Gus Johnson summed things up perfectly by saying Providence "looks confused." Head coach Ed Cooley struggled to figure out how to break through against the 'Nova defense.
One difference, at least early, between this game and Providence's win at the Wells Fargo Center on Jan. 24 was Ben Bentil, as noted by ESPN.com's Myron Medcalf:
The star forward had 31 points and 13 rebounds in that victory, but an ankle injury suffered against DePaul on Tuesday hampered the sophomore. He did heat up in the second half, finishing with 20 points and helping Providence keep things close when the game looked like a blowout.
When Bentil struggled to find his shot early, Providence needed Kris Dunn to shoulder the offensive load. The junior had just 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting. This marks the second straight poor shooting performance for Dunn, who struggled against DePaul, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Of course, Villanova wasn't exactly making things easy on Providence's top two scorers. Added to the Friars' frustration was the surprise outburst by Wildcats forward Darryl Reynolds, per Terrence Payne of Fox Sports:
Scoring wasn't Reynolds' only contribution to the game. He was all over everything with 19 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks. He delivered in a big game exactly like an upperclassman should.
Not known for his prodigious statistical output, Reynolds has worked his way into Villanova's rotation. He's playing a career-high 17.3 minutes per game and does a little bit of everything, so this breakout performance can serve as a springboard to bigger things down the stretch.
Providence did not go down without a fight, battling back from a 15-point deficit with less than eight minutes remaining. The Friars went on a 12-2 run in less than three minutes thanks to three-pointers on four consecutive possessions by Bentil, Rodney Bullock and Ryan Fazekas.
Kris Jenkins provided a much-needed response for Villanova, drilling a three of his own to put his team up 61-53 with less than five minutes to play.
After Providence clawed within six at 63-57 with less than two minutes remaining, Ryan Arcidiacono nailed just his second three-pointer in seven attempts that pushed the Wildcats' lead back up to nine. And all the pressure was back on the home team.
Villanova would spend most of the final minute at the free-throw line, doing exactly what it needed to in order to secure its 20th win of the season and keep its one-game lead over Xavier in conference play.
A win like this for the Wildcats, on the road in a revenge game against a conference rival, will make an impression on the NCAA tournament selection committee with five weeks until March 13's Selection Sunday. It also helps the team's RPI resume, per Embrace the Pace:
Even though the end result wasn't what Providence was looking for, the team can hold its head high because of the resolve shown when Villanova appeared to be in complete control. Getting Bentil back to 100 percent is the Friars' top priority with seven regular-season games remaining.
Villanova and Providence are surefire tournament teams and have split the season series. Both teams know and understand each other's strengths and weaknesses, so a potential decisive matchup in the Big East tournament would be a true heavyweight showdown.
Reynolds' breakout performance was all the rage in Villanova's locker room after the game.
Per Joe Juliano of the Philadelphia Inquirer, head coach Jay Wright said he wasn't at all surprised by what he saw from the forward: "He does it in practice. No one on our team is surprised."
Wright continued in Juliano's recap, noting that Villanova's matchups in practice pit Reynolds against senior forward Daniel Ochefu:
Part of Darryl's development is going up against Daniel every day. A lot of times the games are easier than the practices for Daniel because of Darryl. We've told Darryl, 'You're improving, people just aren't seeing it, and they're going to.' He got an opportunity. The fact that he is ready for this just shows his maturity, his intelligence, because he has been playing like this in practice.
Ochefu is a terrific defensive player for the Wildcats, averaging 1.9 blocks and 0.7 steals per game, so Reynolds gets taken to school frequently.
In addition to praising Reynolds, Wright gave high marks to Josh Hart for his double-double (14 points, 13 rebounds), per Juliano: "He could have scored more, but we might not have been as effective. He just went and guarded Dunn, defensive rebounded, offensive rebounded, did everything. That's leadership."
On Providence's side of things, per Brendan McGair of the Pawtucket Times, Cooley tried to maintain a positive outlook:
Cooley also addressed the cold shooting from Dunn over the past two games, per Kevin McNamara of the Providence Journal:
Providence has lost three of its last four games, so a sense of panic could be setting in for the program. A game against Marquette on Wednesday will determine where the Friars stand in the Big East pecking order.