'Nova starts slowly, pulls away in second half

Villanova's Josh Hart and Milwaukee's Kyle Kelm try for the loose ball during the 1st half of the 2nd round of NCAA Championships at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York Thursday, March 20, 2014. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Villanova's Josh Hart and Milwaukee's Kyle Kelm try for the loose ball during the 1st half of the 2nd round of NCAA Championships at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York Thursday, March 20, 2014. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer ) (Steven M. Falk)
Posted: March 22, 2014

BUFFALO - Villanova came out for its first game in the 2014 NCAA tournament with the type of ragged offense that promised to make its contest against 15th-seeded Wisconsin-Milwaukee a far more dramatic event that the Wildcats would like.

But the second-seeded Wildcats showed a better shooting eye Thursday night in the second half - at least from inside the three-point line - and won going away, 73-53, over the Panthers in the NCAA East Regional at First Niagara Center.

Villanova (29-4) earned a third-round matchup against former Big East rival Connecticut, which outlasted St. Joseph's, 89-81, in overtime in the first game of the night doubleheader.

The Wildcats were horrendous at the outset, connecting on just three of their first 20 field goal attempts from the field, but they shot 59.5 percent from that point. They hit at a 62 percent clip in the second half and were 14 of 18 (77.8 percent) from inside the three-point arc.

"I thought our patience and defense got us through the first half," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Villanova continued to struggle from three-point land, missing its first 16 attempts from deep. The Cats wound up making just 4 of 23 (17.4 percent) with freshman Kris Jenkins accounting for three of them. But they did enough damage from two-point range to send the Panthers (21-14) packing for the season.

The Wildcats also did a fine job controlling Jordan Aaron, Milwaukee's 5-foot-10 senior guard, who entered the game with a 15-point average. Aaron made just 1 of 15 shots from the field, missing all seven of his three-point tries, and scored only six points.

"Eventually they just wear you down," Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter said. "That's what happened to us."

Darrun Hilliard scored 16 points to lead five Wildcats in double figures. JayVaughn Pinkston added 13 and James Bell chipped in with 12. Jenkins, who deposited the Cats' first made three with 11 minutes, 59 seconds to play, finished with 11 points.

The Panthers, winners of the Horizon League tournament, shot just 28.6 percent for the game. After sinking five three-pointers in the first 16 minutes, they managed just one (in 12 attempts) the remainder of the night.

The Wildcats turned the game around with their defense. After trailing by 23-18 with just over four minutes remaining, they held Milwaukee scoreless for the remainder of the first half while going on a 9-0 run, with Hilliard contributing two free throws and a conventional three-point play on back-to-back trips.

From a 27-23 halftime advantage, the Wildcats went out to a pair of nine-point leads early in the second half. The Panthers closed to within four, 37-33, with 13:14 remaining on a jumper by Austin Arians, their leading scorer with 17 points.

But Jenkins scored five straight points to spark a 9-1 run that upped the advantage to 12, with Josh Hart's layup making it 46-34. The Panthers were lingering at 59-49 on Aaron's two free throws with 5:16 to play, but Villanova scored the next nine points - capped by Jenkins' three-ball - to put the contest away.

Bell struggled on three-point shots for the second straight game - he is 0 for 13 from deep in the postseason after missing all eight of his attempts Thursday night. But he helped in other areas, making 5 of 6 from inside the arc to go with seven rebounds and three steals.


jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq

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