BUFFALO, N.Y. — Villanova returned to the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night by playing perhaps one of its worst halves of basketball this season, looking more like a shaky newcomer to the dance than the defending national champion and overall No. 1 seed.
But the Wildcats played offense a lot more smoothly in the second half and hunkered down at the defensive end to stop the momentum of Mount St. Mary’s and defeated the No. 16 seed, 76-56, in a first-round game at the KeyBank Center.
Villanova (32-2) looked like the nervous team in the first half while the Mountaineers (20-16), fresh off a one-point victory in Tuesday’s First Four game that brought them here, played loose and free. The play of Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo kept the Cats in the game.
Villanova missed its first eight shots from the field — four of them from beyond the arc — and did not score until the 13:53 mark when DiVincenzo hit a half-hook in the lane, ending the Mountaineers’ 7-0 run at the start of the game.
The Wildcats led for all of 46 seconds in the first half, including the last three seconds after Brunson hit a driving layup to give his team a 30-29 lead at the break. After their poor start, they connected on 12 of their last 22 attempts and finished the half shooting 40 percent, the same as the Mountaineers.
But the second half was a different story. After the Mount scored the first basket, the Cats ran off the next 13 points, four by Josh Hart, and DiVincenzo’s 3-pointer ended the spurt and gave ‘Nova a 43-31 lead with 15 minutes to play.
Villanova extended its lead to 16 on Hart’s layup and kept the Mountaineers from getting any closer than 11, which they did on Chris Wray’s dunk with 7:13 to play that made it 56-45. But DiVincenzo accounted for the next five points and the Cats pulled away.
DiVincenzo finished with 21 points and a career-high 13 rebounds while Brunson added 14 points, 10 in the first half. Mikal Bridges had 13 points and Hart 11. The Wildcats shot 63.3 percent in the second half and 51.7 percent for the game, and outrebounded the Mount 43-27.
Kris Jenkins went 2 of 13 from the field and scored seven points.
Miles Wilson scored 22 points to lead the Mountaineers, who were held to 34.4 percent from the floor in the second half and 36.8 percent for the game.
After ‘Nova scored its first points of the game, Elijah Long followed with a 3-point basket to give Mount its largest lead of the half, 10-2, with 13:23 remaining. A 16-8 run over the next 7:39 enabled Villanova to tie the game for the first time, 18-18, after Jenkins swished three free throws.
But the Wildcats couldn’t gain a lead until the 1:22 mark, when Eric Paschall took a pass in the lane from Jenkins and dunked for a 26-25 advantage. The lead changed hands four more times in the closing moments before Brunson’s basket put ‘Nova on top.