Brunson, Bridges fuel No. 5 Villanova past W. Kentucky
Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson wore serious looks on their faces during the postgame press conference as if they lost, although fifth-ranked Villanova defeated Western Kentucky 66-58 on Wednesday in a first-round game of the Battle 4 Atlantis at Paradise Island, Bahamas.
Their coach, Jay Wright, was not enthused with how the Wildcats (4-0) struggled until midway through the second half against the Hilltoppers (2-2) in a game that took place at the Imperial Ballroom Arena.
“Our defense got our offense going finally in the second half, but up until that point, they really outplayed us,” Wright said of the Hilltoppers, who led by as many as six points in the first half.
“They did a good job of switching their defenses on us and we didn’t do a good job communicating. We have to do a much better job than that.”
Brunson and Bridges combined for 35 points on 14-of-24 shooting to lead the Wildcats into a semifinal game against Tennessee (3-0) on Thursday. The Volunteers upset No. 18 Purdue 78-75 in overtime in another first-round game.
Western Kentucky (2-2) will face the Boilermakers (4-1) in a consolation bracket game Thursday.
Brunson finished with 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Bridges had 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and he produced eight rebounds and five steals.
Donte DiVincenzo added 12 of his 14 points in the second half. The Wildcats other than Brunson, Bridges and DiVincenzo, scored only 17 points on 6-of-23 shooting from the field and 2-of-9 from 3-point range.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Brunson said, noting Villanova’s 15 turnovers. “We have a lot of work to do. The veterans on this team such as myself need to step up and set the tone for everybody.”
Western Kentucky was led by former Kansas player Dwight Coleby, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Darius Thompson had 16 points and six assists.
Western Kentucky played Villanova tight from the start, with the Wildcats clinging to a 27-24 lead at halftime.
Bridges and Brunson each scored 10 points at the intermission for Villanova, which started cold from the floor at 33.3 percent shooting in the first half.
“If you told me before the game we would have only given up 27 points by the half, I would have taken it,” Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said. “But in the second half, we had too many live-ball turnovers (nine) that hurt us.”
Villanova gained separation with a 14-2 run that enabled it to take a 48-35 lead with 10:19 left in regulation. Bridges started the run with two baskets and Brunson added a 3-pointer.
DiVincenzo had five points in the pivotal run, which included Western Kentucky going scoreless for four minutes. The Hilltoppers missed three shots and committed two turnovers in that stretch.
“We’re all disappointed we lost this game,” Stansbury said. “I’ll take a lot of positives from it. That team is one of the best in the country and we went toe-to-toe with them for 30 minutes. You have to go 40 minutes.”
NOTES: Western Kentucky is 1-13 in its last 14 games against ranked opponents, with the lone win in that stretch coming at home against No. 25 Old Dominion on Jan. 10, 2015. ... This is Villanova’s second visit to this event. In 2013, the Wildcats defeated USC on Thanksgiving Day, upended No. 2 Kansas on a late corner 3-pointer from then-sophomore Ryan Arcidiacono, and held off Iowa in overtime in the title game. ... The Hilltoppers have made at least one 3-pointer in 942 consecutive games, dating back to March 15, 1987, in the season the 3-point shot was instituted by the NCAA. ... Villanova’s defense has been sturdy. Villanova forced 49 turnovers in its previous three games and opponents averaged 64.7 points per game. Villanova was 22-1 in 2016-17 when holding opponents to less than 65 points.