Josh Hart drives to the basket against Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers guard Junior Robinson during the first round of the NCAA Tournament

Josh Hart drives to the basket against Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers guard Junior Robinson during the first round of the NCAA Tournament

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Villanova survives early scare to blow out The Mount in NCAA tourney opener

The defending national champs were awful in the first half, but shot 60 percent in the second half to pull away, 76-56.

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Villanova started their NCAA title defense with a 20-point win over Mt. St. Mary’s, but the 76-56 victory was anything but a laugher. Early on, things looked like an upset could be in the making.

It’s an understatement to suggest Villanova got off to a sluggish start, trailing Mt. St. Mary’s 7-0 before Jay Wright’s team scored their first points, with more than six minutes gone in the game.

Nova had just 11 points at the under eight-minute timeout of the first half, missing 15 of their first 20 shots, including six of their first seven attempts from beyond the three-point line. The Wildcats, the top overall seed in the tournament, had their first tie of the game — 18-18 — when senior Kris Jenkins hit three free throws…at the 5:44 mark.

Jalen Brunson  drives against Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers guard Elijah Long during the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Jalen Brunson drives against Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers guard Elijah Long during the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Villanova didn’t get their first lead in the game until the 1:22 mark in the first half, on an Eric Paschall slam. Mt. St. Mary’s answered the next time down the court to re-take the lead, before Josh Hart, the National Player of the Year candidate, connected on a drive to the hoop, missing a free throw to finish off a potential three-point play. The miss, and subsequent bucket by The Mount’s Miles Wilson, gave the No. 16 seed a 29-28 lead with 10 seconds to play in the first half.

Jalen Brunson hit a layup just before the first half clock expired to give Villanova a 30-29 lead at the break.

“What really hurt us is Mt. St. Mary’s guards are really good,” Wright told CBS reporter Allie La Force at the break. “They’re just slicing us up. We’re having a tough time guarding them and on the other end we’re not being aggressive enough to go at them.”

When asked what his team — again, the top-ranked team in the entire tournament — could do in the second half against The Mount — again, the 67th ranked team in the field — Wright was pretty clear: Play better.

“We’ve got to get dialed in on their personnel and guarding their guards better. And we’ve got to be more aggressive and tougher offensively.”

Villanova allowed just 10 made field goals in the first half on 25 shots, so it’s not as if The Mount was hitting shots all over the court. Still, they needed to play better. And they did.

After allowing a basket to start the second half, Nova scored 13 straight points, taking 43-31 lead with just under five minutes gone in the second. They never looked back, extending the lead to as many as 26 points late in the second half before settling for the 20-point win.

Nova finished the game shooting 31-of-60 from the floor, including 6-of-17 from three, meaning that in the second half, Wright’s team made 21 of their final 35 shots, shooting at a 60-percent clip in the second half. Clearly the game was a tale of two halves, and whether it was nerves or just contagious poor shooting, they shook it off in plenty of time to win.

Five Wildcats finished in double figures, led by Donte DiVincenzo, who had 21 points and 13 rebounds off the bench. Nova plays No. 8 Wisconsin Saturday at 2:40 p.m.

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