By Michael Bennett
It was a vintage night at the old barn on 33rd Street.
Villanova brought its No. 1 national ranking into the Palestra and dared LaSalle to win a Big 5 game.
And the Explorers were up to the dare, even if they fell short.
Jalen Brunson (above) scored 26 points and Josh Hart had 21 to help Villanova hold off La Salle 89-79.
La Salle (4-3) came close. Johnnie Shuler and Pookie Powell made late 3-pointers that kept the deficit at seven. La Salle, which has never defeated a No. 1 team, got more late help from long range when Jordan Price popped a 3 that made it a four-point game.
La Salle fans went wild. The Wildcats seemed shaken.
But the national champs weren’t going down to La Salle.
Donte DiVincenzo’s late dunk and a handful of free throws sealed the win for Villanova (9-0) in its first game of the season as the top-ranked team in the country.
Powell scored 27 points. La Salle just didn’t have enough to get past Villanova and earn its biggest win since it reached the 2013 Sweet 16.
Brunson, whose father, Rick, starred at Temple, made 10 of 17 shots and hit a pair of big buckets down the stretch to give Villanova a 10-point cushion.
“He’s one of those guys that you know at any point that you need a bucket, he can go get one for you,” Cats coach Jay Wright said.
Brunson just might find his image stamped on the Palestra wall a decade or so from now.
“It gave us time to bond,” Brunson said of the tour. “We realized what games are played here, what teams played here, who was from the area.”
Mikal Bridges scored 16 points and national championship game star Kris Jenkins had 12.
“When the ball’s bouncing around, they seem to get it and make a 3,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “The reason for their excellence on a national level is their intangibles. They don’t let up. I don’t care if they’re playing us, playing Kentucky, anybody. That is the same team every single second of every single game they play.”
“We just had a lot of lapses and breakdowns,” Powell said.
Villanova continued to dominate the Big 5 series. The Wildcats extended their series-record win streak to 17 against La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s and Temple. The Wildcats go for the 4-0 sweep Dec. 13 against Temple.