BUFFALO (AP) — For 20 minutes, Villanova looked ordinary, vulnerable, may be even a little scared.
The Wildcats finished like champions.
Donte DiVincenzo scored 21 points and the NCAA Tournament’s top seed shook off a shocking start and stumbled forward in the East region Thursday night with a 76-56 victory over No. 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s.
Leading by just one at halftime, the Wildcats (32-3) opened the second half with a 21-6 run and took their first step toward defending their championship. Villanova is trying to be the first back-to-back titlist since Florida in 2007, and the Wildcats will have to play better to make history.
“I’m not annoyed,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I really am shocked, not how Mount St. Mary’s played, but that we didn’t start the game with energy. We don’t have time to figure it out.”
Since the NCAA went to seeding in 1985, No. 1 seeds are 130-0 against No. 16s. The historic upset remains elusive, but for a while it looked like it could happen inside KeyBank Center.
Freshman Miles Wilson scored 22 points as the Mountaineers (20-16), who edged New Orleans in a First Four matchup on Tuesday, gave the defending champions all they could handle in the first half.
“I was thinking we could get the win,” Mount St. Mary’s Elijah Long said.
But the Big East champions, who entered this tourney with more wins than any past champion, regrouped at halftime and reserved a date with Wisconsin, which beat Virginia Tech 84-74, in the second round on Saturday.
It wasn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be.
“They outplayed us,” Wright said. “At the end, we had more size and some more talented players who made plays. They deserve a lot of credit.”
Jalen Brunson scored 14 points and Mikal Bridges had 13 for the Wildcats.
Villanova not only survived a tough test from the Mountaineers but a horrendous shooting night by senior Kris Jenkins. The hero of last year’s NCAA title game, when his 3-pointer at the horn defeated North Carolina, Jenkins missed his first 10 shots and finished just 2 of 13.
“I’m not worried about him at all,” Wright said. “
The Mount St. Mary’s players wear warmups with “Mayhem” written on the back, and they caused quite a commotion in the early going.
Showing no fear against a team the smart-money guys in Las Vegas said would beat them by 25, the Mountaineers jumped to a 10-2 lead against the Wildcats, who missed their first eight shots, committed two turnovers and had three shots blocked in the opening 5 minutes.
“I thought we were capable of coming out and, you know, missing some shots, coming out and making some mistakes,” Wright said. “But the level of energy we started the game with, I just didn’t think we were capable of that. I’m in a little bit of shock myself.”
Villanova’s players looked nervous and played that way, and when Long threaded a no-look pass to Chris Wray for an easy basket to put the Mountaineers ahead 23-20, two seminarians — one of them clutching Rosary beads — from the tiny school in Emmitsburg, Maryland, high-fived in the stands.
Villanova, though, recovered and took its first lead at 26-25 when Eric Paschall powered home a dunk with 2:33 left in the half.
The Mountaineers left the court at halftime down only 30-29 and full of confidence.
It didn’t’ last.
Villanova senior Josh Hart, who sat more than 8 minutes in the first half with two fouls, opened the second half with a layup and DiVincenzo, who added 13 rebounds, hit a 3 to cap a 13-2 burst that knocked the air out of Mount St. Mary’s.
Before long, the Wildcats were having their way, and except for DiVincenzo missing two breakaway dunks, Villanova showed why many believe they can win it all again.
UNC Wilmington 71
ORLANDO, Fla. — London Perrantes scored 24 points, Marial Shayok added a career-high 23 off the bench and No. 5 seed Virginia rallied from 15 points down to beat 13th-seeded UNC Wilmington 76-71 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
Perrantes scored 19 points in the second half as the Cavaliers (23-10) got their slow-paced offense going. His biggest bucket was a driving bank shot with 1:37 remaining, which put the Cavs up 71-66.
UNCW (29-6) wouldn’t go away, though. Chris Flemmings drained a 3-pointer from the elbow and then Devontae Cacok hit a layup to make it 73-71 with less than a minute to play. But Shayok answered on the other end, banking in a runner that gave the Cavs some breathing room in the closing seconds.
Virginia advanced past the first round for the fourth consecutive year and won as a No. 5 seed for the first time in four tries. The Cavs can thank Perrantes and Shayok for making it happen.
East Tennessee State 65
ORLANDO, Fla. — Devin Robinson tied his career-high with 24 points, Kasey Hill added 14 and No. 4 seed Florida used a second-half surge to beat 13th-seeded East Tennessee State 80-65 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
Robinson, an NBA prospect who had been relatively quiet late in the season, scored his most points in nearly two months. He made 10 of 17 shots and chipped in seven rebounds. The speedy Hill reached double figures for the fourth consecutive game. He also added six rebounds and five assists for his most complete game in a month.
Kevarrius Hayes, filling in for injured center John Egbunu, finished with seven points, seven rebounds and six steals. He broke the school record for steals in an NCAA Tournament game.
Virginia Tech 74
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Bronson Koenig made a school record eight 3-pointers and scored 28 points and Nigel Hayes added 16 as NCAA Tournament-tested Wisconsin advanced in the East Region with n 84-74 victory over Virginia Tech.
The eighth-seeded Badgers (26-9) made all the big plays in the closing minutes to set up a meeting with top-seeded Villanova on Saturday. The Wildcats shook off a sluggish and strange first half and downed Mount St. Mary’s 76-56.
No team understands the survive-and-advance mentality in this tourney better than Wisconsin, the only team in the country to make the Sweet 16 the past three years.
Zach Leday scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half to pace the Hokies (22-11), making their first NCAA visit since 2007.