Whether facing ranked or unranked opponents, Villanova’s wins in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament haven’t come easy.
The fifth-ranked Wildcats will face another challenge as they take on a healthier and unbeaten Mississippi team in Sunday night’s championship game.
Villanova (4-0) dispatched its first two opponents, Farleigh Dickinson and Penn, by a combined 61 points, but needed freshman Isaiah Armwood’s 3-pointer with 17 seconds left to edge George Mason 69-68 in Thursday’s opening game in Puerto Rico.
The next day, the Wildcats nearly blew an 18-point lead to No. 18 Dayton before holding on for a 71-65 victory.
“This early in the season I don’t think we handled the pressure that well,” coach Jay Wright said.
The Flyers closed within two with 2:23 left, but Villanova scored the rest of its points from the free-throw line, including four in the final minute from Corey Fisher.
“We knew that they would keep coming at us,” said Fisher, who had a season-high 18 points. “We knew this was going to go down to the buzzer, and it did. We just tried to keep getting stops and be aggressive at the offensive end.”
After reaching the NIT semifinals in 2007-08, Mississippi lost starters Eniel Polynice and Chris Warren and key reserve Trevor Gaskins to knee injuries early last season. The Rebels also endured the distraction of coach Andy Kennedy’s arrest for punching a cab driver in Cincinnati. Kennedy pleaded guilty in April and was sentenced to six months’ probation.
After the Rebels limped to a 16-15 finish, David Huertas also left to play professionally in his native Puerto Rico, and Malcolm White transferred to SEC rival LSU.
The Rebels, however, are off to a 4-0 start thanks to the return of their injured players and Terrico White, the 2009 SEC freshman of the year who has a team-leading 17.3 points per game and is one of four players averaging in double figures.
Warren, who has scored 16.0 points per game, had a season-high 27 to lead Ole Miss to an 86-74 win over Kansas State on Friday night. White added a season-best 25 as the Rebels shot 56.0 percent.
“We were making our shots, especially me and Chris in the second half,” White said. “I thought it was a good team win. We’re excited to get a chance to play Villanova and compete for a tournament championship.”
The Rebels are 4-3 against ranked opponents since Feb. 10, 2007, but have lost six straight to top 5 teams since beating No. 4 Auburn in overtime on Jan. 22, 2000.
“I’ve got so much respect for Jay (Wright) and their program,” Kennedy said. “We came over with the hope of having an opportunity to play in the championship game. We’re going to regroup, take a day to enjoy the island, then get our focus back on the task as hand.”
Ole Miss earned its first-ever NCAA tournament win by defeating Villanova 72-70 in 1999—the only previous meeting between the schools.