The defending champion Villanova Wildcats didn't look like the No. 1 overall seed in the 2017 NCAA tournament early on Thursday, escaping a fight from Mount St. Mary's by a final of 76-56 that doesn't tell the story of how difficult the game really was.
Villanova came out of the gate completely out of sorts. The Wildcats missed their first eight shots and were held scoreless for nearly six full minutes until Donte DiVincenzo finally nailed a jumper.
DiVincenzo was a shining star for Villanova in the win, recording his first career double-double with 21 points and 13 rebounds off the bench. He did have two embarrassing moments along the way with two missed dunk attempts, but it's hard to find fault with his performance other than that.
John Clark of Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia likes what it says about Villanova that DiVincenzo can take over a tournament game:
John Clark CSN @JClarkCSN
How much of a team is #Villanova? Donte DiVincenzo 21 points leading scorer tonight. Phil Booth was leading scorer in championship game https://t.co/wa4UlYkCcY2017-3-17 01:11:07
There were other reasons for Villanova's lackluster effort in the first half. Josh Hart was forced to the bench after recording two fouls within the first nine minutes. Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges combined to go 0-for-10 from the field (0-for-6 from three-point range).
Reuben Frank of Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia singled out Jenkins' shots as particularly egregious:
Reuben Frank @RoobCSN
Kris Jenkins isn't even close on his jumpers. 0-7 now.2017-3-16 23:54:40
There has been a pattern of erratic play from Jenkins virtually all year. He shot under 40 percent overall from the field and was bad in Villanova's 55-53 win over Seton Hall in the Big East tournament semifinal, scoring just four points on 1-of-8 shooting.
Another part of Villanova's problems in the first half was Mount St. Mary's was just playing better team basketball. The Mountaineers took care of the ball, with just two turnovers, and Miles Wilson appeared to be having a March moment with 13 of his team's 29 points in the first 20 minutes.
Wilson will have the luxury of saying he led all scorers in an NCAA tournament game against the defending national champions with 22 points.
Villanova was able to weather the early storm, only trailing by as many as five points, and eventually taking its first lead in dramatic fashion thanks to Eric Paschall, via March Madness:
NCAA March Madness @marchmadness
Villanova takes the lead! #MarchMadness https://t.co/8I4FAYunod2017-3-16 23:56:31
Things would finally turn for Villanova in the second half. A 13-0 run gave the reigning national champions a 12-point lead with less than 15 minutes to play. Paschall had a heads-up defensive play during the spurt that led directly to two easy points, via March Madness:
NCAA March Madness @marchmadness
Gimme that! #MarchMadness https://t.co/ls5gQQiI5t2017-3-17 00:34:49
The Mount St. Mary's offense, which shot a pedestrian 40 percent in the first half, really struggled to build any kind of rhythm against Villanova in the second half. The Mountaineers shot 11-of-32 in the second half and were just 5-of-21 overall from three-point range.
This game was a good wake-up call for Villanova, as it worked through offensive issues in the first half with its best players struggling. Things turned around after the intermission when head coach Jay Wright was able to calm his group down.
The Wildcats will await the winner of Wisconsin-Virginia Tech on Saturday, though tomorrow's day off will provide them an opportunity to tighten up some of the mistakes made early to avoid a potential letdown.
Even in victory, Wright had nothing but positive things to say about Mount St. Mary's.
"They came in with great energy and confidence, and that's a credit to Jamion (Christian, the Mount St. Mary's head coach) and his staff," Wright said, via Ron Ratner of Northeast Conference Sports.
Wright also paid compliments to Mount St. Mary's guards, who include Wilson, Elijah Long and Junior Robinson.
"Those three guards are smaller and quicker than anyone we play against, and it gave us a lot of trouble," Wright said, via Ratner. "It really did."
Looking at his own team, Wright didn't have any answer for why the Wildcats got off to a slow start.
"I honestly don't know what's wrong," said Wright, via ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil. "If I tried to tell you, I'd be BS-ing you."
Christian had an interesting comment about where his team was seeded for the tournament.
"What's crazy about me is I wanted a 16 seed. ... The distance between one and 16 is closing down," he said, per Ratner.
As for how things turned out, Christian pointed out the end of the first half as a key difference.
"In one way I was really so inspired by our defensive effort, but I thought we squandered an opportunity," said Christian, via Ratner.