Pinkston came up big — 25 points, 10 boards and a big-time rejection.

By Mary Cunningham

There are two ways to look at Villanova’s high-wire 82-77 victory over former Big East foe Syracuse at the jam-packed Wells Fargo Center:

1. The 11-0 Cats really needed to be pressed before the conference season starts in two weeks, and this game was certainly that.

2. WTF!!!!!

Josh Hart prefers the former.

“We need to create habits that are going to make us successful in April,” the sophomore guard tells the Wildcats.

April? The only two games played in April are the ones that decide the national championship.

The Wildcats closed out their latest win with a ferocious 6-minute stretch that showed why they are legitimate Final Four contenders.

JayVaughn Pinkston had 25 points and 10 rebounds and Darrun Hilliard scored 23 points, keeping No. 7 Villanova undefeated even though they never led until overtime and rallied from a 15-point hole to beat ‘Cuse.

Hart hit a 3-pointer and Pinkston tied the score 69-all with 4.2 seconds left in regulation on a basket off a turnover.

Hilliard’s two free throws 57 seconds into OT gave Villanova its first lead of the game 71-69. He was kicked in the face during a scrum and was on the bench when Daniel Ochefu made two free throws that pushed the lead to 74-71. Hilliard was tested for a concussion and not allowed back in the game.

Pinkston scored a late bucket, then added a monster block that preserved the lead with 15 seconds left. Hart added 21 points in the most gutty win of the season for the Wildcats.

“We’d like to come in and win by 15, 20 every game, but it’s not going to happen,” Hart said. “We need these kind of games to prepare us for conference, prepare us for April.”

Rakeem Christmas, a Philly native who played for Academy of the New Church, and Michael Gbinije each scored 18 points for Syracuse (6-4).

The Orange never trailed in regulation and the Wildcats could only get as close as one point late in the second half. Pinkston’s three-point play with 1:14 left cut the lead to 63-62. Christmas followed with a three-point play off a goaltending call that stretched the lead to four and had the Orange in position to play spoiler for the second straight season — Villanova was 11-0 last season when it lost at Syracuse.

But Pinkston and Hilliard did enough down the stretch against an Orange team that was in foul trouble all game. The Orange had seven players with at least three fouls and three fouled out.

The Wildcats were 26 of 32 from the free-throw line; Syracuse 13 of 18.

Pinkston was clutch in the final minutes of regulation/OT, just as he was in a win last month against Michigan when he had the go-ahead basket and game-saving block in the final minute of a 60-55 victory.

The Orange scored with ease in the first half against a Wildcats defense that failed to make any consistent stops. Gbinije and Trevor Cooney hit consecutive 3s for an 11-point lead.

The Wildcats scored six points in 37 seconds to make it a 10-point game, but it was just a blip in an otherwise dismal half.

“We didn’t come into the game with the focus that we should have,” coach Jay Wright said. “But, over a season, that’s going to happen some games.”

Cooney, who scored 17 points, steadied the Orange with his third 3-pointer of the first half and helped them earn a 43-31 halftime lead.

Syracuse just got by Louisiana Tech 71-69 on Sunday, leaving coach Jim Boeheim wondering about his team. While the Wildcats have their aim on March Madness, Boeheim refused to think about the NCAA tournament.

“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “I’m not even thinking about that. I’m thinking about playing Colgate. March is a long ways away.”


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