Created: 12/04/2013 10:06 PM
(AP) VILLANOVA, Pa. - Villanova returned from the Bahamas with three wins, a trophy and a national ranking.
The Wildcats could have used an extended stay on the island.
Darrun Hilliard scored 19 points and No. 14 Villanova overcame a 7:29 scoreless stretch to open the second half in beating Penn 77-54 on Wednesday night.
The Wildcats shot only 26 percent after halftime and needed 3-point sprees to open and close the game to put away pesky Penn.
"I don’t think the Bahamas really gave us a big head," Hilliard said, "but you can’t look past anybody."
James Bell scored 14 points, JayVaughn Pinkston added 13 and Villanova (8-0) won its first game as a ranked team in almost two years.
The Wildcats catapulted from unranked to 14th this week, the first time they cracked the Top 25 since they were No. 19 in the Feb. 28, 2011, poll. Within a span of about 24 hours, Villanova defeated No. 2 Kansas and No. 23 Iowa to win the Battle 4 Atlantis last weekend.
With a weaker team on the schedule, Villanova beat the Quakers for the 11th straight time.
As the perfect start and high-profile wins thrust the Wildcats into the national spotlight, their return home was greeted as if they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. They had fun reminders Wednesday night from their weekend in the Bahamas, including a highlight video of every clutch shot that won them the championship, and then a trophy presentation at halftime.
"I like being ranked, I really do," coach Jay Wright said. "It’s great for the fans, great for Philadelphia basketball. Nothing bad about it."
The Wildcats dominated so much in the first half that it hardly mattered they didn’t score their first point of the second until the 12:31 mark. Even with the drought that saw them miss 15 of their first 16 from the floor, Penn couldn’t cut the gap under double digits.
Penn finally made it a nine-point game with 10 minutes left. Hilliard scored Villanova’s first field goal with 9:54 to go, then made one of two free throws off a turnover to make it 53-41. The Wildcats missed 14 of their first 15 shots in the second half, yet still led by nine.
Kris Jenkins hit Villanova’s ninth 3-pointer to give the offense a needed boost. That stretched the lead to 15, and the Wildcats closed it out for their fifth home win.
"We’ve got some older guys that, when they want to turn it on, can turn it on," Wright said. "I think that’s what happened. That’s not a good plan for success."
Miles Jackson-Cartwright led Penn (2-5) with 17 points and Darien Nelson-Henry had 12.
"I thought our guys played with energy and effort," Penn coach Jerome Allen said. "Whether they always played smart or not, it’s a different story. But at least I thought they competed. But it’s my responsibility to get these guys to, not just compete, but expect to win."
Villanova struggled shooting in its final two tournament games on Paradise Island, including a 39 percent effort against the Jayhawks. Ryan Arcidiacono bailed out the Wildcats in that one with a winning 3-pointer, but he missed his first eight 3-point attempts against the Quakers.
Penn got a 20-minute crash course in just what made the Wildcats so successful on the island.
Hilliard and Bell, the tournament MVP, opened the game with 3s and Josh Hart nailed one for a 17-6 lead. Dylan Ennis made a steal at halfcourt, then was pummeled by Penn’s Julian Harrell on the drive to the basket. Ennis made one of two free throws, then sank another 3-pointer on the possession for a 24-8 lead.
Jenkins joined in the 3-point fun, helping Villanova get off to a 7-of-15 start from outside the arc and a 29-9 lead.
The Wildcats had nine assists on their first nine baskets and kept the Ivy League Quakers from generating any offense.
Then Jackson-Cartwright turned his 3-point game into a pop-a-shot contest. The 6-foot-3 guard nailed four 3s in a matter of minutes to slice the gap to 35-24.
"I was just trying to get a look," Jackson-Cartwright said. "I wasn’t finishing at the rim. I left some points out there. I got an open look, so I was just going to let it fly."
The Wildcats held off Jackson-Cartwright’s surge and used a huge advantage at the free throw line (14 of 17 to 1 of 3) to lead 46-28 at the break.