After a seven-day break for final exams, No. 18 Villanova returns to action Monday night when it hosts Navy as Wildcats leading scorer Dante Cunningham looks to bounce back from his worst effort of the season.
Villanova (10-1) has two games left before opening Big East play at No. 24 Marquette on Jan. 1, including a Big Five contest versus Temple on Saturday. The Wildcats will first face the Midshipmen (8-3) in their first action since a 70-59 win over Philadelphia rival La Salle on Dec. 14.
That Villanova victory came despite a minimal contribution from Cunningham, a senior forward averaging 16.7 points. He failed to reach double figures for the first time all season with nine points and just four rebounds in a season-low 24 foul-plagued minutes.
“That really concerned us,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said about playing with Cunningham on the bench. “We hadn’t been in that position before.”
Corey Stokes scored 18 points and Scottie Reynolds added 13 for the Wildcats, who limited La Salle to 37.5 percent shooting and forced 15 turnovers.
“I think our defensive pressure helped us,” Stokes said. “We forced turnovers and that allowed us to go run. Coach told us to keep it up.”
With Cunningham on the bench, Wright was forced to give more minutes to his reserves. They came up big. Corey Fisher, Shane Clark and Reggie Redding combined to score 21 points and Fisher had six of Villanova’s 20 assists.
“It was Shane Clark and Reggie Redding,” Wright said. “Those two gave us incredible energy off the bench. Both teams were kind of battling there and those two came in really fresh and helped us.”
Reynolds, the Wildcats’ leading scorer a season ago with 15.9 points per game, has endured some early struggles in 2008-09. The junior guard is averaging a career-low 13.9 points and shooting a career-worst 37.7 percent from the field.
Cunningham has picked up most of the slack. The senior forward had never averaged more than 7.5 shots per game, but has upped that average to 11.4 this season and is shooting a career-high 57.6 percent.
The Midshipmen are trying to finish with a winning record on their five-game road stretch after splitting the first four games. They lost 68-63 at Canisius on Saturday.
Kaleo Kina led Navy with 21 points, and Romeo Garcia chipped in 11 for the Midshipmen, who have lost two of three following a seven-game winning streak. Kina leads all Patriot League players with a 20.8 scoring average.
Navy coach Billy Lange was an assistant at Villanova under Wright from 2001-04, before being hired by the Midshipmen. Wright is 4-1 all-time against his former assistants.
Villanova has won the last three meetings in this series after Navy won the first five. The Wildcats won 70-61 on Nov. 25, 2006, in the last matchup as Reynolds scored 20 points.