Nova gets perfect test in win over Temple

PHILADELPHIA -- There are times when a basketball game can look a little like a ballet, run with a fluidity of motion that can be downright pretty.

Then there are games like the one between Villanova and Temple on Thursday night, run with all the fluidity and grace of a rugby game. Offensive schemes laid in a scrapheap on the sidelines, scouting reports turned into little more than an assistant coach’s wishful thinking.

The key to being a really good team is to be able to win both ways, to score when your offense unfolds like an open highway and when your offense gets run over by a semi.

Villanova beat Temple 78-74 in a slugfest Big 5 game worthy of a Big East stamp because when the Owls took everything away from the Wildcats, they still managed to find a way to score and Temple didn’t.

“They didn’t let us run a lot of offense,’’ Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “Came down to being able to players just being able to make baskets and we didn’t make enough of them.’’

Jay Wright never will be accused of being a control freak of a coach. He is not on the sidelines madly scribbling on a dry-erase board every minute, concocting detailed offensive in-game schemes.

Can he coach? Absolutely. You don’t make six NCAA tournaments, win 20 games six years in a row and earn a spot in a Final Four without knowing what you’re doing.

But he has built Villanova on trust in his players as much as anything, holding fast in the faith that his guys know what to do with the ball in their hands. He demands defensive effort and offers up some semblance of offensive freedom in exchange.

Against Temple, he was rewarded for his faith.

The Wildcats held Temple to 40 percent shooting and forced 11 turnovers.

“We’re a tough, aggressive team,’’ Villanova’s Corey Stokes said. “We have a lot of heart.’’

Of course it’s easy to hand over the keys to the Ferrari when one top-10 recruiting class rolls into the next, but it is of note that the Wildcats are adept as anyone in the country at creating offense for themselves.

And against Temple, they had to. The Owls ranked 15th in field-goal percentage defense (37.7 percent) and 20th in scoring defense (58 points per game) and have a keen ability to frustrate teams out of doing what they want to do.

But Villanova never grew frazzled or frustrated and simply found ways to score.

In the first half, the way came via Maalik Wayns. A Philly product that grew up on the lore of the Big 5 and played against most of the guys on the Temple roster, he has unabashedly taken the keys that Wright has handed him. He scored eight points but more critically dished out four assists, setting up his teammates with his fearless drives to the hoop.

“Maalik has definitely developed into a true Philly guard,’’ Wright said. “I thought he was when we recruited him but he actually had a little more AAU in him than I realized. Now he’s really helping guys like [Corey] Fisher and Stokes.’’

Taking the lead from Wayns, Stokes created his own fortune in the second half, albeit in different fashion.

Always a good shooter, he was once more a spot-up guy, an on-the-arc camper. Now he can create shots as well as make shots. He sunk five 3-pointers but also took six trips to the free throw line, evidence that he is far more than just a perimeter stalker. Stokes finished with a team-high 24.

Where this all matters, of course, is not in the Big 5, but in the Big East.

Wright was masochistically thrilled that this game dropped into the schedule when it did. On Sunday, the Wildcats embark on the conference season, opening up against Rutgers.

It is hardly a news flash that the brutality of the Big East demands that teams find ways to win when things aren’t laid out easily.

Wright said before the game that Temple was as good defensively as any team he’d face in his own conference and was anxious for a well-timed measuring stick.

“Win or lose this game was perfect timing for us,’’ Wright said. “It could have ruined our New Year’s Eve, but we went into this thinking we wanted to see where we were. We’re a good team, but we can get a lot better.’’