By Annie Ross
Villanova’s Jalen Brunson made up for his late turnover with a steal on the other end and scored seven points in the final 1:38 to help Villanova hold off Providence 66-57 and sweep the season series from the Friars.
Josh Hart added 17 points and eight rebounds for the Wildcats (21-2, 8-2 Big East), who led by as many as 13 in the second half before Providence turned up its defensive pressure and made a late run.
A long 3-pointer by Friars freshman Alpha Diallo cut the deficit to 59-57 and brought the crowd to its feet.
The Friars had a chance to get closer after Brunson was called for traveling with just under a minute remaining and the Wildcats up by four. But the sophomore guard stole the ball on the other end and completed a three-point play that put the game out of reach.
“After the turnover I just thought, short-term memory,” said Brunson, who scored 15 points in the second half. “Just focus on the next play. Coach preaches that every day and it’s something we’ve got to start believing as a team. It really works. Once you clear your mind and just keep focusing, good things are going to happen.”
Diallo had 18 points for Providence (14-10, 4-7), which was coming off a big road win at Marquette but has lost three of its last four.
Friars coach Ed Cooley said his young team must learn that coming close is not good enough.
“I think this is the third or fourth game we’ve had an opportunity to win,” he said. “There are zero moral victories. They give you 18 opportunities in this league to try and make your run and we’re getting to a critical point here, make or break on the kind of season we want to have.”
The Wildcats never trailed. Kris Jenkins opened the game with a 3-pointer and Villanova ran out to an early 9-2 lead.
The Friars tied the game at 16 after a behind-the-back pass from Diallo to Kalif Young and trailed just 32-29 after a tip-in by Emmitt Holt just before the halftime buzzer.
It was another close call for the Wildcats, who lost by two points at Marquette a week ago, knocking them from the No. 1 spot in the AP poll, and beat Virginia by two at the buzzer on Sunday.
“We are not playing great basketball right now, but we are finding a way to just scrap it out and dig and claw and find ways,” coach Jay Wright said. “That’s a good thing, I guess, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
The defending national champions beat the Friars by 10 points at home less than two weeks ago and have won in Providence each of the last four seasons. The Wildcats are 3-2 as visitors in conference play this season, and half their remaining eight games are on the road.
Villanova’s senior class of Hart, Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds is 118-15 during their careers, the most wins by a single class in program history.