UNI falls short vs. Villanova
By AARON BEARD
AP Basketball Writer
PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — Villanova coach Jay Wright loves playing in November tournaments, from the chance to learn how his team responds to early challenges and experiment with which lineups work best.
Of course, it helps that the fifth-ranked Wildcats keep winning trophies, too.
Mikal Bridges scored 18 points and Villanova pulled away down the stretch to beat Northern Iowa 64-50 in Friday’s Battle 4 Atlantis championship game, marking the fifth straight season the Wildcats have won a November tournament.
Jalen Brunson added 16 points and was named the tournament’s most valuable player for Villanova (6-0), which has 17 straight wins in these early season tournaments — including a run to the 2013 Atlantis championship here in the Bahamas. They’ve won the 2014 Legends Classic, the 2015 NIT Season Tip-Off and the 2016 Charleston Classic since.
“There’s a challenge coming here,” Wright said. “Everything’s taken care of for you here. You’re treated like a king. But this is paradise. There’s a lot of temptations here. And if you get caught up in that and that’s more important to you than being a good basketball and a good teammate, that can affect you.
“These guys and the guys we’ve had over the years, they’re really good basketball players. They’re intelligent and they know this is an opportunity to play great competition — and they take it very seriously.”
The Wildcats led most of the way then used an 8-0 run in the final 4 minutes to turn away the Panthers (5-2) for their third win in as many days.
“It gives us great confidence right now, knowing that we’ve played pretty well as a team,” Bridges said. “But it can also hurt if you get too satisfied with this and get complacent.”
Juwan McCloud scored 13 points to lead the Panthers, who shot 42 percent and controlled the boards. But Northern Iowa made just 6 of 23 3-pointers and failed to get to the free-throw line in a game that had just 20 total fouls.
“We just didn’t have quite enough offense today,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “I love this team. And we’re going to get better. And we’re going to be right there when it matters.”
Northern Iowa: The Panthers finished with two wins in three games in the Bahamas, starting with a 61-58 win against SMU then getting a couple of late baskets to beat North Carolina State 64-60 on Thanksgiving day. They just couldn’t complete the three-day run.
“The thing I liked the most was the toughness part of it,” Jacobson said. “We came down here and we were tough.”
Villanova: The Wildcats managed to avoid the trouble that befell fellow ranked teams No. 2 Arizona and No. 18 Purdue in Atlantis. They used a second-half spurt to pull away from Western Kentucky 66-58 in Round 1, then ran off a bigger one — 23-2 — to erase a double-digit deficit and beat Tennessee 85-76 in the semifinals. And Bridges’ leap from last year has built a scary 1-2 punch with Brunson, a preseason Associated Press all-American.
“The thing I learned is we don’t quit,” Brunson said, adding: “I think we really got tested in this tournament.”
THE KEY SEQUENCE
The Panthers got within 51-45 on Spencer Haldeman’s 3 with 5:33 left after trailing by double figures midway through the second half, but Klint Carlson missed a 3-pointer and a jumper with a chance to bring them even closer.
Phil Booth soon answered with a 3. Then, after Eric Paschall’s score inside, Bridges hit a 3 off a crosscourt feed from Brunson to push the lead to 14 with 2:03 left.
Northern Iowa has already played the past two national champions, though this one went much better than the first meeting. The Panthers trailed by 31 points in a season-opening 86-69 loss at 2017 champion North Carolina despite the fact the Tar Heels were down two starters — including Final Four most outstanding player Joel Berry II.
“I would say that this shows we can play with anybody in the nation,” McCloud said.
Villanova’s bench was a little deeper than usual.
Ten-year-old Asher Davies, from Canby, Oregon, met Wright before the game and sat at the end of the bench during the game as part of the Make-A-Wish program. Davies was also recognized during a first-half timeout.
“I know he’s been struggling with an illness,” Wright said. “And then we’re getting ready for the game, we think it’s all about us, it put us in a really good perspective before the game.”
Northern Iowa: The Panthers host UNLV on Wednesday.
Villanova: The Wildcats host Penn on Wednesday.