PHILADELPHIA — Villanova is 19-1 for the first time in school history.
“Awesome,” coach Jay Wright said.
Maybe reaching its first Final Four in 24 years last season was only a starting point for Wright’s talented team.
Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher each scored 17 points to help No. 3 Villanova beat Notre Dame 90-72 on Wednesday night.
The Wildcats are 19-1 for the first time and are the only Big East team unbeaten in conference play (8-0). Led by Reynolds, Fisher, Antonio Pena and Co., Villanova has won 10 straight games and is in the mix for the top spot next week in The Associated Press poll.
“We’ll spend a lot of time after the season talking about this,” Wright said.
South Carolina’s 68-62 win over No. 1 Kentucky a night earlier could knock the Wildcats from the top spot. No. 2 Kansas might ascend to No. 1 if it wins at No. 11 Kansas State on Saturday.
If the Jayhawks lose, well, reserve a spot for Villanova.
“It would mean a lot to everyone,” Wright said. “It would be great for everyone at the school, recruiting, everything. There’s not a negative about it, except within our team.”
Wright explained the No. 1 ranking could become a problem if the Wildcats become entangled in the hoopla of the poll instead of working on getting better.
Losing focus seems unlikely for the Wildcats, especially with the meat of the Big East schedule ahead. They have back-to-back road games against top-10 teams Georgetown (Feb. 6) and West Virginia (Feb. 8) and a showdown with No. 4 Syracuse.
“We really are excited that we can get better,” Wright said.
Reynolds and Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody were expected to state their cases for Big East player of the year. Harangody delivered on his end for the Irish (15-6, 4-4) with 21 points and nine rebounds in 37 minutes. Harangody played hard until the end and kept alive Notre Dame’s early bid for its first win over a top-10 team on the road since 2001.
He scored 16 points in the first half and Notre Dame only trailed 41-40 at the break.
“It was just a case of good possessions by ‘Nova,” Harangody said. “We were only down one, but they came out ready to play and we were flat. They made good plays and it seemed like they got all the loose balls.”
The Wildcats also got going at the end.
Reynolds’ numbers weren’t overly impressive until a big spurt in the waning minutes. He scored nine straight points during Villanova’s 11-0 run over the final 4 minutes that put the finishing touches on yet another victory.
Reynolds, whose end-to-end layup dash sent the Wildcats to the Final Four last year, hustled all over the court, including a sensational steal-turned-heave as he fell out of bounds that Maalik Wayns finished on the other end with a layup.
Reynolds’ first 3 of the game put the Wildcats up 84-67, then he swiped the ball away from the Irish and accelerated uncontested to the other end for a fast-break layup that gave the Wildcats the push they needed to go ahead by 20-plus.
Reynolds heard his name chanted by appreciative fans at the Wachovia Center as the game turned into a rout.
For 30 minutes, this was a shot-for-shot game that kept the Irish within single digits. Tim Abromaitis scored 16 points for Notre Dame, but the Irish coughed up valuable points with a 19-for-30 night from the free-throw line.
None of the final individual scoring numbers were dazzling for the Wildcats, but their depth continues to wear down opponents.
“As we’re just attacking and rebounding and doing all the little things to win the game, you could just see, certain times on the loose ball, we get the dive. We get the rebound,” Fisher said.
Wayns and Taylor King each played at least 20 minutes off the bench. King’s 3-pointer with 9 minutes left gave Villanova its first double-digit lead, 66-56.
“They come at you with so many fresh bodies and run a great transition game,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “They beat us up inside, especially Pena. He’s a heck of a basketball player. They were feeding the post a lot and he got into a rhythm.”
Pena was Villanova’s inside presence, scoring five tough buckets under the basket to finish with 14 points and 10 rebounds. For years under Wright, the Wildcats have made their NCAA tournament runs with their guard play. Pena gives them a 6-foot-8 presence who can score from the post and is a nifty passer that eases the pressure off the guards.
“That’s probably the best thing, not scoring all the points, but knowing that I did all the little things for my team to get the win,” Pena said.
All the little things are paying off big for Villanova.