10-0 VILLANOVA MAKES A CASE FOR NO. 1 IN BEATING LA SALLE 77-68!

“We played the next No. 1 team in the country,” La Salle coach John Giannini said.

By Sam Bush

The Explorers gave Villanova a mighty run, but the nationally ranked Cats may live up to that prediction.

Duke lost.

Kansas Lost.

But Nova was too much for LaSalle, which scored more baskets, sank more three-pointers, had more steals and still was just another victim in Villanova’s unbeaten season.

Phil Booth scored 18 points and Donte DiVincenzo (above) had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the fourth-ranked Wildcats avoid an upset in a 77-68 win over La Salle.

“They don’t have bad games,” Giannini said.

The Wildcats (10-0) were sloppy — throwing the ball away several times on outlet passes — slumped from the 3-point line and could not shake the pesky Explorers until the final minutes of the game to win their 21st straight Big 5 game.

The Wildcats had depth and a massive edge from the free-throw line to sink the Explorers. La Salle (5-6) was a two-man show in B.J Johnson and Amar Stukes, and that was enough to give them a 62-61 lead with 4:47 left.

But the Wildcats had Booth and DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson scored 17 and Mikal Bridges, quiet all game, came to life for crucial baskets late to seal the win.

Throw in the whopping disparity from the line — Villanova made 27 of 35, La Salle was 4 of 5 — and the Wildcats made their case for why they should fight it out with No 3. Michigan State (9-1) to become the new No. 1 team.

“It’s a great lesson for our guys. The score isn’t always what the game is really about,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Booth put the Wildcats ahead with three free throws and followed with an assist on DiVincenzo’s three-pointer that made it 67-62 and finally gave them a bit of breathing room. Bridges, coming off a career-high 28 points against Gonzaga, went inside for a pair of tough buckets and a 71-64 lead that brought the Villanova fans to their feet.

“These guys have played in these games. They’re not surprised,” Wright said.

Johnson led the Explorers with 21 points and Stukes had 16 to help keep slim hopes alive of pulling off a stunner. The duo combined to hit seven three-pointers and carried La Salle to the brink of victory.

The Wildcats beat No. 13 Gonzaga by 16 points this week at Madison Square Garden and were expected to roll against the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center. The foundation for their perfect record had come from the three-point line; the Wildcats hit a school-record 19 against Saint Joseph’s and buried 10 against the Zags. Against the Explorers, the threes dried up in the first half. Villanova missed its first six attempts and missed eight of 10 overall in the half.

La Salle went the opposite direction in the first half. Shooting a miserable 29 percent from three-point range this season, the Explorers went 6 of 12 to take a 38-37 lead. Stukes hit two straight threes and his bucket a tick before the horn gave La Salle the lead at the break.

The Wildcats haven’t been defeated by a Big 5 team since Temple won on Dec. 5, 2012.

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