Villanova runs out to a 30-point lead, defeats La Salle, 72-46, in Big 5 opener at the Palestra

In this photo from November 21, 2021, Jay Wright, head coach of the Villanova Wildcats looks on during the second half of a game against the Purdue University Boilermakers at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. On Sunday, the Wildcats defeated La Salle Explorers, 72-46. (Dustin Satloff/Getty Images/TNS)
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Joe Juliano The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

No. 7 Villanova returned from a week off fresh and energetic Sunday night, overwhelming La Salle with suffocating defense and excellent shooting.

In the second half, the Wildcats’ week off exposed some rust and carelessness with the basketball, and stronger defense by the Explorers.

The Cats were never in trouble after taking a 30-point lead in the first half and went on to defeat La Salle, 72-46, at the Palestra in the Big 5 opener for both teams. But there were teachable moments for Jay Wright to talk about as his team embarks on a week that includes two more City Series opponents, Wednesday at Penn, Saturday versus St. Joseph’s at Finneran Pavilion.

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Collin Gillespie’s 13 points led four players in double figures for Villanova (4-2, 1-0 City Series). Freshman Khalil Brantley led the Explorers (2-3, 0-1) with 17.

But perhaps the biggest news of the night for the Wildcats was the appearance of fifth-year senior forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who returned to on-court action for the first time since the final game of the 2019-20 season at Georgetown. He contributed two points, two rebounds and an assist in nearly six minutes.

The return of Dada

That’s the nickname of the 6-foot-9 Cosby-Roundtree, who missed all last season with stress fractures in both his tibias and was going to have a non-playing role with the Wildcats this season. But he practiced last week and said he felt fine so Jay Wright, thinking he’d be needing bodies with the flu still going around his team, put him on the active roster for Sunday night’s game.

“Physically, I didn’t feel any pain or anything like that,” Cosby-Roundtree said. “In terms of the basketball aspect of it, I felt I just wanted to get back, get some more experience, get more time playing.”

Wright said team doctors cleared him to play, but they could not guarantee if he can play a full week at a time.

“He’s been doing a lot of little things to help our guys,” he said. “He’s really helped Eric Dixon and Nnanna [Njoku]. Every day he’ll do something on the court for 10-15 minutes. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to handle this.”

Dialed in for a half

Villanova was locked in on defense from the opening tip, refusing to give La Salle much space to shoot, or even to breathe. The Explorers made just two of their first 18 shots and had only nine points until Brantley hit a three-point basket with 4:06 left in the half. The Wildcats went on a 19-0 tear during that time and extended their lead to 30 points. La Salle committed nine turnovers in the first half and trailed 42-17 at the break but got its bearings in the second half, turning the ball over only twice and holding ‘Nova to 40% shooting.

“Our guys played a little looser, we started pressing a little bit and got some turnovers in the second half,” said La Salle coach Ashley Howard, the former Villanova assistant. “The game was out of reach but we wanted to fight for 40 minutes and not give up. We played hard in the second half, showed some fight, showed some positives.”

Carrying the load

That honor went to Brantley, who entered the game with a 6.3-point average. Brantley came off the bench three minutes into the game and became the Explorers’ best – and for a 16-minute stretch of time, only – scorer. He scored all of La Salle’s nine points over a six-minute period.

La Salle then went seven minutes without a point before Brantley knocked down a three, his second of the game, to stem a 19-0 Villanova run. At the half, the 6-foot-1 Bronx native was shooting 3-of-6, and the rest of the Explorers were 1-of-20.

For the game, the Explorers had just one assist.

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