Josh Hart struggled for 11 points and 5 rebounds.

By Harry Allison

Mount St. Mary’s teased the nation for a half before Villanova exploded to a 76-56 first-round win in the NCAA tournament’s first round last night in Buffalo.

“They really outplayed us,” Cats coach Jay Wright said. “We just, at the end, had more size. … We just had bigger, better athletes, but they were a great team. I thought they were the better team tonight.”

Well, perhaps for a half. The Mount trailed by a point at halftime, after leading for almost all of the first half, and scored the first basket of the second half. But from there the Wildcats went on a 12-0 run and never looked back, using their superior size and firepower to pull away.

The Mountaineers could have had a considerable first-half lead had they shot better. They were 10-for-25 from the field and several threes rimmed out. They had jumped out to a 10-2 early lead and had held the Wildcats scoreless through the first media timeout.

“Honestly, we thought they were going to try to come in and punch us in the face right away,” Mountaineers guard Elijah Long said. “That obviously wasn’t the case.”

The Mount’s three-guard offense, including 5-5 Junior Robinson, gave Villanova fits for long stretches.

“I think those three guards are smaller and quicker than any guards we played against,” Wright said. “It gave us trouble. We had a hard time early (but) we adjusted to their speed and quickness” in the second half.

Villanova’s Dante DiVincenzo led all scorers with 21 points, though he flubbed a pair of second-half dunks that left him with a sheepish grin.

Wright said he didn’t know why his team began the game with such low energy. “I honestly don’t have an answer,” he said. “If I came up with something, I would be BS-ing you.”

One thing Wright said he did know. He was asked if the Wildcats can advance in the Round of 32 against Wisconsin or Virginia Tech if they come out without energy again?

“No,” Wright said firmly. “No. And I think they know that.”

Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said he wanted the 16 seed and that he embraced the challenge of trying to be the first to get that upset for the ages.

“It’s going to take a team that has a defensive mindset that can do that for a full 40 minutes,” Christian said. “It’s going to happen. The distance between 1 and 16, as you saw tonight, is closing down. They may have had bigger bodies than us, they may have made some shots over top of us. But the heart of athletes and the heart of teams is getting better and better. The gap is really closing.”