PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- For the fifth time in as many Novembers, the Villanova Wildcats are bringing an in-season title back to campus. The No. 5 Wildcats (6-0) pulled away from the University of Northern Iowa Panthers Friday afternoon in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis to post a 64-50 victory.
This is the second Battle 4 Atlantis crown in that stretch (2013 and 2017). The other tourney titles were the 2014 Legends Classic, the 2015 NIT Season Tip-Off and the 2016 Gildan Charleston Classic were the other championships in that run.
Junior Jalen Brunson, who was named the most valuable player at the Battle 4 Atlantis, scored 16 points to go with four assists and two steals in the win. Redshirt junior Mikal Bridges, named to the All-Tournament team, finished with 18 points and seven rebounds. The third Villanova team captain, Phil Booth, chipped in with 12 important points.
"The reason you are able to win five of these is by having good players who are intelligent," noted head coach Jay Wright, who recorded his 392nd victory at Villanova today. "There's a challenge coming here. Everything is taken care of for you. You are treated like a king. But there a lot of temptations here in Paradise. If you get caught up in that, and that's more important to you than being a good player and teammate, that can affect you.
"These guys, and the guys we have had over the years, are really good basketball players. They know this is an opportunity to play great competition and take it very seriously."
The two juniors who had helped Villanova to its wins over Western Kentucky and Tennessee, Bridges and Brunson, were at the forefront early in the title game at Imperial Arena. The two combined for 10 of VU's first 16 points as the `Cats crafted a 16-9 advantage with 11:02 remaining before halftime.
The Panthers, though, used a patient approach to slowly shave the deficit and move in front at 27-26 at the 2:30 mark. The run was 18-11 and was generated by strong rebounding and defense that made points harder to come by for the Wildcats.
A dunk from Eric Paschall on the final offensive possession of the period allowed the Wildcats to take a 32-29 lead into halftime. The 11 points scored by Bridges over the first 20 minutes led all scorers.
The Wildcats were able to clamp down defensively in the first 8:13 of the second half, limiting the Panthers to four points in that stretch. In the meantime, Bridges and Brunson went back to work at the other end and VU slowly pushed its advantage to 44-33.
UNI would get no closer than six points the rest of the way, due in large part to the tenacious defense applied by Villanova. The Panthers were just 9-of-27 from the field in the second half (.333) and limited to 21 points. It was a group effort for the Wildcats with Booth and Paschall playing pivotal roles (10 points, five rebounds and strong defense against UNI's Bennett Koch).
"Phil didn't play last year -- he missed a whole year," Wright noted. "He's just starting to come back. Eric is learning how to be a go-to guy. We've been blessed by Jalen and Mikal. They're used to it. As guys like Phil, Eric and Donte DiVincenzo continue to grow, that's what will make us a better team."
Brunson averaged 19.7 points per game across the three games here and contributed pivotal baskets throughout. It's his second tournament MVP award as a Wildcat -- he won the NIT Season Tip-Off honor in 2015.
"One thing I learned about this team here is that we don't quit," Brunson stated. "We strive to play hard for 40 minutes. In the preseason, we had our struggles. But we kept getting better and better.
"We really got tested at this tournament. We kept battling back, kept grinding, kept sticking together no matter what the fatigue was or what the score was."
"We want to give Northern Iowa a lot of credit," added Wright. "What a smart, disciplined, intelligent team. That team prepared us for Big East games against Creighton and Butler -- they play a very similar style."
Wright also pointed to a 10-year old named Asher who joined the Wildcats on the bench today as part of a Make-a-Wish Foundation initiative.
"Asher is from Oregon and he came down to sit with us on our bench," stated Wright. "Honestly, it was inspiring before the game to meet him."
The 2017-18 Villanova Basketball season is presented by KeyBank.