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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Villanova coach Jay Wright was raised on Big 5 hoops and considers himself a bit of a keeper of the city series’ legacy. He’s also quick to warn the Wildcats that anything can happen when Philly teams play at the Palestra.
“It brings me back to childhood,” Wright said. “Every time I step in this building, it’s a special experience. Once the game comes, I just know crazy things are going to happen. I just expect it.”
Winless La Salle came primed for an upset — but the only unpredictable part of a Villanova game against a city rival is the final score of its latest win. Eric Paschall scored 27 points, Phil Booth had 19 and No. 23 Villanova held off one more upset in an 85-78 win over La Salle on Saturday.
Villanova (6-2) remained the class of the city and won its 23rd straight Big 5 game, round-robin play among five Philadelphia Division I basketball teams. The Wildcats haven’t lost a city series game since Dec. 5, 2012 against Temple.
They got a pretty good scare against winless La Salle (0-8).
The Wildcats were reeling after consecutive home losses to Michigan, in a national title game rematch, and in overtime to Furman that knocked them out of the AP Top 25 poll. Villanova steadied itself with three straight wins in a Florida tournament and defeated then-No. 14 Florida State in the title game to return to the rankings.
But a return to Philly only unsettled the Wildcats early.
La Salle was the home team at the Palestra, which serves as much a museum to Philly’s glorious history as it is a court for city series games to be played on. The Explorers played the first half like an undefeated team instead of a winless one and buried nine 3-pointers. The sensational sequence came at the midway point: David Beatty drew a foul on a layup and La Salle kept possession. Isiah Deas capitalized with a 3. Beatty had a steal and Jack Clark hit a 3 for a 32-20 lead that set the stage for a monster upset.
The rest of the half turned into a 3-point shootout worthy of NBA All-Star weekend, and the Wildcats closed to 42-39 at the half. The Wildcats, who lost players from the title team to the NBA, could never really shake the Explorers until the waning moments.
“We had the great confidence that over the last few years that we were eventually going to wear people down,” Wright said. “Well, none of those guys are on this team, so that confidence isn’t there.”
That puts more responsibility on championship holdovers Booth and Paschall.
“We know how coach thinks. Whenever coach tells us something, we try to teach it to the younger guys as quick as possible,” Paschall said.
Traci Carter’s 3 pulled the Explorers to 69-66 and they got it within one with 5:24 left. Miles Brookins lobbed a lazy pass into the middle that was picked off by Saddiq Bey and converted into a three-point play by Booth. Paschall sucked the air out of La Salle fans with a dunk for a 78-72 lead.
Wright kept former assistant coach Ashley Howard winless in his first season on the bench at La Salle. Howard, who worked five seasons under Wright, was hired at La Salle just a week after the Wildcats won their second national championship in three seasons.
“These guys have no weaknesses because all these guys can shoot,” Howard said.
The Explorers are forced to wonder how much better their upset odds would have improved had leading scorer Pookie Powell not sat out with an injury (lower body). Carter scored 17 and Deas had 15.
(©Copyright 2018 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)