Big time Villanova still feels at home in small time Field House

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It’s been 46 years since Tom Ingelsby was one of the mainstays on Jack Kraft’s 1971 Villanova team that went to the Final Four, playing UCLA for the National Championship. That team played its home games at a tiny cramped Main Line gym known as the Field House.

The same field house where the Wildcats took on City rival Penn Wednesday night in a one-time only return to their old home while the Pavilion next door goes through renovations.

With Ingelsby, who scored 1,616 points, among the Nova alumni galore jammed inside the place — many on hand to help honor the late Rollie Massimino during a halftime ceremony — it was a night to remember for all.

“I don’t think we lost many home games here over the three-year stretch I played,” said Ingelsby while watching the 7-0 Cats systematically dismantle the Quakers, 90-62. “We had a great home court advantage. I remember some great players coming in here: Bob Lanier, Calvin Murphy, Ernie DiGregorio, Marvin Barnes.   It was a great place to play and would get really loud in here. It’s nice to be back.”

Fresh from winning the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas there was some concern the Wildcats might take Penn lightly, especially considering the fact they’d won the last 14 straight over the Quakers. Then again, Villanova has been beating everyone in town for quite a while, carrying a remarkable 18 game winning streak in City Series play vs. Penn, Temple, Saint Joseph’s and LaSalle into play, winning the last 16 by double figures.

Well, make that now 15 straight over the Red and Blue, 19 in a row in the Big Five, with a trip to Hawk Hill Saturday next on their agenda, after Jalen Brunson’s 17 points led a parade of five Wildcats in double figures.

But don’t tell Jay Wright this one or any of the others was easy.  More important, make sure none of his players think that way. 

“It doesn’t matter about the streak ,” said Wright, who said it was so loud in the place — renamed the Jake Nevin Field House in honor of Nova’s infamous longtime former trainer — his players couldn’t hear him during timeouts. “We know if you don’t bring it we’re going to get beat. We never lose respect for any of those teams. But we came to play tonight.  I was really proud of our leadership. They set the tone.”

On the other hand the 5-4 Quakers, coming off an exhilarating four-overtime win at Monmouth, knew the No. 4 ranked Wildcats aren’t just any team. 

“When you watch them on film you’re slightly underwhelmed because they don’t have crazy talent like some of the teams in the ACC,” said Penn’s third-year coach Steve Donahue, who coached previously at Boston College in the ACC.  “On tape Villanova  doesn’t jump out at you. But what is quite apparent when you play them is there’s never a team I’ve coached against that is smarter, tougher and more selfless.  They have a degree of confidence — each of those kids — in themselves and each other. They stepped up. We’re just not at that level of confidence, even though our  guys are familiar with them from playing over the summer.”

As for Nova’s mastery over the rest of the city Donahue’s at a loss to explain it but can’t help but marvel at it. “Saint Joseph’s and Temple have been very good during this latest stretch and LaSalle has been to the Sweet Sixteen,” continued Donahue, whose team shot only 41.4 percent to the Wildcats’ 56.9 percent, with A.J. Brodeur (15 points) and Darnell Foreman (13) leading the way. “All those other coaches are motivated to reach the bar Jay’s set. I do feel we want to end that streak and there’s no doubt that the other three teams can.  But to get those kids at that level to play so well for so long as Jay’s done is remarkable.”

For this one night Brunson along with Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth and Omari Spellman (14 apiece) did their thing at the place where the late Howard Porter and Paul Arizin, Chris Ford, Eddie Pinckney and many others, including ‘Nova’s No. 17 leading scorer Ingelsby used to call home.  The Jake was rocking from start to finish as the Wildcats took care of business as they usually do.

By the time they finally start Big East play Villanova will have already finished  City Series action, with LaSalle and Temple on the slate right after a Broadway date against NCAA runners-up Gonzaga. Wright says those city games are invaluable because Phil Martelli, Fran Dunphy and John Giannini will prepare for them as well as anybody to follow.

“It’s beneficial to play these games early,” said Wright. “It really helps us.”

To that the rest of the teams in the city can only say they’ll continue to make it their business to try to bring the Wildcats reign to an end one of these days. 

Only don’t hold your breath.

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