Guard trio carries Nova over UCLA

NEW YORK -- Scottie Reynolds got Villanova back to a Final Four with an epic, game-ending layup to beat Pitt in the 2009 Elite Eight.

The shot will forever be etched in Nova lore.

But Reynolds' influence on the Wildcats is now gone and it shows.

A trio of Villanova guards -- Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns -- don’t mean any disrespect by this, but they feel they leaned too much on Reynolds last season. They looked for him to constantly bail them out of a bad situation.

Now they’ve all moved on.

“Ever since Scotty’s freshman year, he had the ball in his hands,’’ Stokes said. “The team relied on Scotty. He was one of the greatest players in Villanova history. I don’t want to take anything away from him, but we can all score. It doesn’t matter who has the ball. Coach [Jay Wright] feels comfortable with either me, Maalik or Fish with the ball in his hands.’’

And so the baton has been passed from Reynolds to the trio of Stokes, Fisher and Wayns. The Villanova guards dominated the ball in an 82-70 NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal victory over UCLA Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats will play Tennessee in Friday's championship. The three guards combined for 45 of the Wildcats’ 62 shots. They made 17. And didn’t hurt that they were a combined 22-of-24 at the free throw line. Fisher finished with 26 points, Wayns with 19 and Stokes with 16.

Nova has Mouphtaou Yarou inside (13 points and 16 boards vs. UCLA) and if a Villanova student code of conduct committee gives suspended freshman forward JayVaughn Pinkston a chance to play sometime this season (he’s facing simple assault charges for a punch on another Villanova student at a party earlier this month), then there will be even more balance. Wright said earlier Wednesday that the committee could hear Pinkston’s case next week. He is allowed to practice with the team but can’t represent the university and sit on the bench.

Seeing Pinkston in practice Wednesday, it was clear that he would have a major impact on this squad at both ends of the court. But instead of waiting on the legal case, the team will wait on the school's verdict since this was a student-on-student crime.

For now and the foreseeable future, Nova will be driven by its guards, much like it was on that 2006 Elite Eight team led by Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry.

“That’s our offense,’’ Wayns said. “That’s the way coach Wright tells us to play. We’re not where those guys were [Foye, Ray and Lowry] since they’re all pros. But we’re aggressive and we’re giving our team the best chance to win. Last year, if things got bad we turned to Scottie. We leaned on Scottie. Now it doesn’t matter since any of us can make a play.’’

UCLA’s trio of Malcolm Lee, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson had their moments, but weren’t in the same level on a consistent basis as Nova’s guards.

The Wildcats don't have the one star like Connecticut’s Kemba Walker. A more appropriate comparison might be the tandem of Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs of Pitt or Georgetown’s Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark.

“We’ve had more time together,’’ Fisher said of his senior classmate Stokes. “Maalik played with us last year too. We had time to watch Scottie and learn from him and we’ve had time to gel.’’

What Villanova has this season -- something that was lost at times last season in falling flat against Saint Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- is a cohesion among the guards.

“We’ve got great chemistry,’’ Stokes said. “We’re always together off the court and it translates on the court. It should be like this the whole year.’’