VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) – During his first two years at Villanova, Josh Hart was the guy summoned off the bench to provide energy or come up with a big defensive stop.
Now that he’s a starter, the junior guard looks like he could turn into a big-time scorer, too.
Hart scored a career-high 27 points to help No. 11 Villanova fend off an early scare and hand Akron its first loss with a 75-56 win on Sunday night in the NIT Season Tipoff.
Hart shot 11 for 21 and grabbed nine rebounds. The Wildcats (4-0) trailed by as many as eight in the first half before turning the game around with a 27-5 run across both halves.
“They were big and long, and Josh was the guy that could draw them out and have the size and length to get to the rim against guys like that,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “If he doesn’t recognize that, we’re in trouble. But he did.”
Four days after shooting over 50 percent in a big NIT road win over Arkansas, the Zips came out hot again. They took a 16-8 lead with 13:46 left in the first half on four 3-pointers.
Akron made 41 percent of its 3-point attempts before the break, but the Wildcats clamped down defensively in other areas to take the Zips out of their rhythm.
Villanova tied the game 26-26 5 minutes before halftime when center Daniel Ochefu tapped in his own miss. It took its first lead at 34-31 with 1:49 left on an acrobatic three-point play by Hart.
Hart had 15 points in the first half, including 12 of the team’s first 18 points.
Akron didn’t score any points in the final 4 minutes of the half and Villanova led 38-31 at the break. The Wildcats continued to pour it on after halftime with Hart scoring 12 points in the first 7 minutes, capped by a tough three-point play and a 3-pointer that put Villanova ahead 56-36.
“They did a good job taking us out of some things,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. “And I thought it was deflating when we didn’t score around the rim. We got it down in on them, which is a good place for us to go. But we didn’t make them and they (went on a spurt) at the end of the first half that took our life away a little bit.”
Antino Jackson scored 13 points and Kwan Cheatham Jr., had 11 for Akron. The Zips (3-1) rolled into the Pavilion fresh off the program’s best start of its Division I era.
Villanova senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono finished with 15 points, eight assists and five rebounds, and Kris Jenkins scored nine of his 11 points in the second half.
“We didn’t start slow today,” Wright said. “They’re just really good.”
HIGH PRAISE FOR “ARCH”
After another big-time performance, Arcidiacono now has 22 assists and just one turnover through four games.
Both coaches shook their head in disbelief when they heard that stat with Wright saying that “he’s playing the best offensively that he’s played since he’s been here” and Dambrot calling him “one of the best guards in college basketball.”
NCAA TOURNEY TALK
It might be only November but Wright predicted that the Zips, who were picked to win the MAC East in the preseason, would make the NCAA tournament.
Dambrot also brought up the Big Dance after the game.
“The next time we get one of these games is in the NCAA tournament,” the Akron coach said. “So we have to learn from this.”
Akron: This game marked the first time the Zips had ever faced Villanova. They are now 2-9 all-time against current Big East members. … Five of Akron’s first seven made baskets were 3-pointers. … The Zips finished with 11 3-pointers and 10 two-point field goals.
Villanova: Villanova ended a four-game homestand to start the season. The Wildcats don’t return to the Pavilion until Dec. 13. … Ochefu was shooting 63 percent from the field coming in but shot just 2 for 8 from the field. … Villanova committed only one turnover in the first half.
Akron: at Green Bay on Tuesday night.
Villanova: vs. Stanford in NIT Season Tipoff at Barclays Center on Thursday.