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Guard Darrun Hilliard had “one of the best floor games of his career” last Friday,  according to head coach Jay Wright. (Rachel Bleier / The Villanovan)

by Pat Ralph

In front of a packed crowd of 6,500 at the Pavilion last Friday night, the Villanova men’s basketball team kicked off the 2013-2014 campaign with a hard-fought 75-59 victory over the Leopards of Lafayette.

The ’Cats were led by senior guard James Bell’s career-high 24 points on 7-of-16 shooting and redshirt junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston’s 22 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field.

Bell finished one rebound short of a double-double for the night, while 14 of Pinkston’s 22 came in the second half for Villanova.

Along with Bell and Pinkston’s marquee performances, sophomore big man Daniel Ochefu led the ’Cats with 11 rebounds and junior Darrun Hilliard quietly had “one of the best floor games of his career,” according to Head Coach Jay Wright, with his 13 points and seven assists.  Hilliard also added five rebounds and three steals on the night.

The Wildcats led for most of the closely-knotted first half, and went into the locker room with a slim 27-25 lead at the half.

At the beginning of the second half, Lafayette came out firing and outscored the ’Cats 13-5 to take a 38-32 lead and force Wright to call a timeout.

After the timeout, the Wildcats fought back and took control of the game, outscoring the Leopards 43-21 for the rest of the evening’s contest.

Despite the eventual 16-point margin of victory for the ’Cats, the game was much closer than portrayed by the numbers on the scoreboard.

The ’Cats were cold from the field for most of the night, shooting a rather low 39 percent for the contest.

However, Lafayette was no better, shooting only 39 percent from the field for the game.

From an offensive standpoint, this was far from a fun and exciting game, for the most part.

Nevertheless, what kept the Leopards alive all night was their terrific three-point shooting, as they shot over 45 percent from downtown for the evening.

As for Villanova, the three-point game was non-existent with a 17 percent showing in the season opener.

Because of Lafayette’s red-hot three-point shooting, Villanova’s perimeter defense was a serious problem all night, especially in the first half.

“The perimeter defense in the second half was much better,” Wright said after the game. “It was very poor in the first half, but I felt the adjustments we made at the half really helped us improve our D in the second half.”

The improved defense in the second half made a difference, as Lafayette only shot 36 percent from the field after intermission.

Just as the defense improved in the second half, the offense stepped it up as well.

“We wanted to get the ball inside in the first half, but instead we settled for three point shots and only made three out of 18,” Wright said. “In the second half, we just got the ball inside and that was the difference.”

The stats support Wright’s claim, as the Wildcats shot 46 percent from the field in the second half compared to a meager 33 percent before halftime.

Two areas that really made a difference in the Wildcats’ game were rebounding and turnovers.

While the Wildcats outrebounded Lafayette for the game 41-27 (25-4 after halftime), they were also able to force the Leopards into 16 turnovers on the night, showing good defensive all around.

In addition, Villanova committed only seven turnovers, which is a vast improvement from last season and, hopefully, a sign of more good things to come.

As a result, the Wildcats outscored the Leopards in points off turnovers 18-8 and points in the paint 28-12 on the night.

Another important difference- maker in the game was in free throws, which has been one of Villanova’s biggest strengths over the last decade.

The Wildcats shot 74 percent from the charity stripe for the night.

The Wildcats struggled to get to the line in the first half, but after the halftime adjustments, they took 27 foul shots and converted on 22 of them following intermission.

“At the end of the day, I think we just wore them down because we have so many bigger and more athletic bodies than they do,” Wright said. “It takes a toll late in the game and we were able to use that to our advantage.”

Wright also noted that the bruised ribs sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono suffered last week in practice did slow him up a bit in the game, but was confident that he will be playing at full strength later this week.

Arcidiacono had a rather quiet game, totaling only three points and two assists on 1-of-13 shooting from the field.

Without question, the Wildcats’ next few practices will be focused upon improving their perimeter defense and getting better shots in the paint rather than settling for just 3-pointers.

Next up for the Wildcats is a home contest on Wednesday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m. against Mount St. Mary’s, followed by a Sunday matinee at home against the Towson Tigers at 5 p.m. on Nov. 17.

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