By Ben Sullivan
When Bucknell appeared on Villanova’s schedule many in Nova Nation viewed is as a cupcake pre-season game for the nationally ranked Cats.
But then they played the game Thursday night at the Pavilion.
Dylan Ennis (above with coach Jay Wright) scored 16 points, including four free throws in the final 30 seconds, as No. 12 Villanova survived a serious upset scare with a 72-65 win over Bucknell in the Progressive Legends Classic.
Ryan Arcidiacono added 15 points and Daniel Ochefu had 14 points and 10 rebounds for Villanova (3-0). Darrun Hilliard scored 10 points and forced two big turnovers in the final minute to help the Wildcats remain perfect on the season.
“I would much rather be in a game like this, now that it’s over,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “Going into the game, I wanted it to be a 30-point game. But this is good for us.”
Chris Hass had a game-high 32 points on 9-for-12 shooting to lead Bucknell (1-2), which trailed by as many as 14 before rallying to take the lead late in the game.
Hass’ biggest bucket came with 1:45 left as the lanky junior guard from Michigan drained a tough 3-pointer to put the Bison ahead, 65-63, and stun the sellout crowd of 6,500 at the Pavilion.
But the Bison didn’t score again as the Wildcats clamped down on defense and made some clutch free throws in the closing moments.
“That’s a heart-wrenching loss,” Bucknell head coach Dave Paulsen said. “To battle back from such a big deficit early and how hard we competed and how hard we played and how well we played . but we just couldn’t close it out.”
With Bucknell leading by two and less than two minutes remaining, Arcidiacono hit two foul shots to tie the game before Ochefu blocked two shots on the same possession to prevent the Bison from regaining the lead. Ochefu then made 1 of 2 from the line on the other end to put the Wildcats in front for good at 66-65.
After Hilliard forced a turnover, Ennis put the Wildcats up three with a pair of foul shots. Hilliard followed that with a steal and dunk in transition to ice the game.
Villanova, the reigning Big East champs, shot just 39 percent from the field and 23 percent from 3-point range but relied on its staunch defense, forcing the Bison into 21 turnovers.
“We have a lot of experienced guys on our squad this year,” Ochefu said. “Everyone is comfortable. We make it tough on ourselves in practice, so when we get to the game we just try to translate that.”
Trailing by seven at halftime, Bucknell came out firing in the second half. Hass and John Azzinaro hit 3-pointers followed by a free throw from D.J. MacLeay that tied the game at 39-39 with 14:40 remaining.
A quick 3-pointer from Hilliard on the other end put Villanova back on top and the Wildcats extended their lead to six on a Josh Hart 3 with just under 10 minutes remaining.
After tying the game twice more, Bucknell took their first lead of the game at 62-61 with 3:33 to go after Hass was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made all three free throws.
“I’m very proud of our guys and I’m very proud of my alma mater,” said Wright, a co-captain of Bucknell’s 1982-83 squad. “They were very well-coached – better-coached than the ‘Cats tonight. They just had all the answers. We knew they were going to Hass. They just found different ways to get the ball to him. Basically, we couldn’t stop him.”
Hass didn’t truly get hot until later in the game as Bucknell missed its first six shots and committed four turnovers before Azzinaro opened the scoring for the Bison with a layup five minutes into the game.
By then, the Wildcats held a 9-2 lead, which they doubled to 30-16 with three minutes left in the first half. But back-to-back 3-pointers from Hass and J.C. Show right before halftime – Bucknell’s first two 3s of the game – got the Bison within 33-26 heading into the break and set the stage for the second-half drama.
“We just gutted it out,” Wright said. “It was ugly.”