La Salle hangs with No. 1 Villanova in 89-79 loss

La Salle Explorers center Tony Washington (5) passes past Villanova Wildcats guard Mikal Bridges (25) during the first half at Palestra. (Photo: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
La Salle Explorers center Tony Washington (5) passes past Villanova Wildcats guard Mikal Bridges (25) during the first half at Palestra. (Photo: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

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PHILADELPHIA – Sophomore Pookie Powell scored a career-high 27 points, including 20 in the second half, as the La Salle University men’s basketball team battled No. 1 Villanova for the full 40 minutes. In the end, the Wildcats were able to fend off the Explorers by a final score of 89-79 at the famed Palestra on Tuesday evening.

A putback bucket from junior Tony Washington tied the game up at 2-2 early, and triggered a Philadelphia tradition from the fans as the La Salle student section threw streamers out on the court. After a technical foul was called, Villanova’s Darryl Reynolds intentionally stepped over the line on the ensuing free throw to make the technical moot.

As the game got into a flow, neither team was able to build a lead larger than three over the first 17 minutes. Trailing by three at the 7:08 mark, junior B.J. Johnson took off on a fast break and threw down a two-handed slam as he was fouled. The free throw tied the game and, less than two minutes later, a three-pointer from Johnson gave the Explorers a 26-25 lead.

The Wildcats responded with an 11-4 spurt that was capped by a three-pointer from Josh Hart to up the margin to 36-30. A jumper from Mikal Bridges with less than a minute remaining in the half gave Villanova a 40-32 cushion before consecutive buckets from Powell to end the half trimmed the deficit to four heading into halftime.

Following a ceremony that retired the jersey of La Salle legend Larry Cannon at intermission, the Explorers continued to hang tight with the top team in the country. A layup from Washington at the 17:02 mark pulled La Salle to within 42-40 and, after a layup from Hart re-upped the lead to four, two free throws from Powell once again made the margin two at the 16:08 mark.

Villanova was able to go on a quick 9-0 run over the next four minutes to push its advantage to double digits at 53-42, and a three-pointer from Bridges put the score at 65-52 with 7:19 on the clock.

But La Salle would not go down without a fight, and back-to-back triples from junior Johnnie Shuler and Powell brought the Explorers back to within 65-58. Villanova once again pushed the lead to 11 before another three from Shuler nudged La Salle back to within eight with 4:19 remaining.

From there, Powell hit on a layup with 1:55 on the clock to put the score at 75-70 and, after a short jumper from Jalen Brunson, a three-pointer from senior Jordan Price brought the Palestra crowd to its feet as the Explorers were within striking distance at 77-73 with 1:18 left.

That is as close as La Salle was able to get, however, as Villanova went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line over the final 1:14 to seal the win.

In addition to Powell, Johnson finished with 13 points and Washington closed with a season-high 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Price had a quality all-around game, scoring just nine points but adding six rebounds and six assists with just one turnover. Brunson had 26 points to lead Villanova.

La Salle returns to action on Saturday, Dec. 10 against another BIG EAST opponent, Georgetown, at the HoopHall Miami Invitational. The contest, which will be televised on ESPN2, is scheduled to tipoff at 2:00 p.m.

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