Josh Hart's 37 points and 11 rebounds were enough for Villanova to erase 11-point deficit against Notre Dame, as No. 1 Wildcats won 16th straight to remain undefeated. (Photo by NBC Sports)
NEWARK, NJ -- Josh Hart is already an overwhelming favorite for Big East Player of the Year honors. However, more performances like his one-man show Saturday afternoon could garner him greater hardware by the time all is said and done in April.
Hart's career-high 37 points, supplemented by 11 rebounds, came at the most opportune time for top-ranked Villanova; who leaned on their senior leader to chip away at an 11-point deficit before taking control down the stretch to defeat Notre Dame, 74-66, in the Never Forget Tribute Classic at the Prudential Center, their 16th-straight dating back to the first round of last March's NCAA Tournament.
"I honestly didn't know how many points I had," Hart remarked as his offensive display was essential to the Wildcats (10-0) remaining undefeated on a day where none of his other teammates recorded more than eight points. "I was just trying to make the right play. Some of those times, they stuck with our guys and I was able to get to the rim."
Notre Dame (9-1) opened the game by keeping Hart in check through the first 90 seconds, as the 23rd-ranked Fighting Irish ripped off an 8-2 run that forced Jay Wright to call a timeout to get the reigning national champions refocused. It worked soon after, as Hart scored the first points after the break to begin his march to a 19-point opening stanza, instrumental in Villanova only trailing by a 41-36 margin at halftime. A 14-2 Wildcat run in the waning moments before the intermission turned a double-digit margin into a one-possession affair before Matt Farrell beat the buzzer to give the Irish some breathing room going to the locker room.
Notre Dame fought to maintain their lead in the second half, and seemed to have an answer for every Villanova comeback attempt for the first ten minutes of the period. However, an 8-0 Wildcat run completely swung the momentum and brought a largely pro-Villanova gathering to life as Hart scored six of the eight unanswered points, and fed Jalen Brunson for a go-ahead layup with 9:07 remaining in regulation on the one basket he did not score in that stretch.
"I've got to, no matter what the score is, make the right play," said Hart. "Whether we're up 20, I've got to make the right play; down 20, I've got to make the right play. That's something I've always believed in."
The Irish had one last run in them, as Steve Vasturia's three-pointer with 6:32 to play put them ahead by a slim 62-61 margin, but Villanova closed the game on a 13-4 run, with Hart's final two points coming at the free throw line to seal a huge victory for the Wildcats over a game Notre Dame team that proved they could take a punch from the best in the nation.
"We're disappointed we didn't win," head coach Mike Brey assessed. "We thought we matched up well, so our guys are disappointed, but I love my group and what I've seen early out of them."
While Notre Dame was valiant in defeat, the biggest takeaway of the day was Hart cementing himself as perhaps the favorite for the John Wooden Award, presented to the most outstanding college basketball player at the conclusion of every season.
"We all believed he would develop into this kind of leader," Wright gushed. "I thought it would take a little longer just because he had Arch (Ryan Arcidiacono) and Daniel (Ochefu) for three years ahead of him, and he was always kind of the fun-loving guy. He takes it so serious, the responsibility. What he's really doing when we're down six is just bringing everybody together."
"He's as good as any player in the country, he really is," Wright reiterated. "He's so complete, he will do whatever it takes to win a game; he's got the ability to do it, and at the right time. He got big rebounds at the end of the game, he scored, he made passes, he made free throws, he defended Vasturia. He did everything. He is as complete a player, I think, as we've ever had."