Villanova's Josh Hart goes up for a layup during the...

Villanova's Josh Hart goes up for a layup during the game against Notre Dame at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

NEWARK — If Josh Hart wasn’t already in the conversation for national Player of the Year, he is now.

Hart, who returned for his senior season despite talk of entering the NBA Draft after last year’s national championship run, scored a career-high 37 points in No. 1 Villanova’s 74-66 win over No. 23 Notre Dame on Saturday in the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic at Prudential Center. Hart made 10 of 14 shots from the field, and all 14 of his attempts from the free-throw line. He also had 11 rebounds.

“I was just out there playing,” said Hart, who played all 20 minutes of the second half. “Being tired is really just mental. In a game like that, you’re battling, battling, battling — fatigue isn’t a factor. I have tomorrow to rest, but today we had a game to play.”

The event benefited the Families of Freedom Scholarship, an educational assistance fund dedicated to aiding the children of Sept. 11 victims. The fund will run through 2030 — the goal is to raise more than $100 million.

“You could feel it out there,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said of the atmosphere. “You could feel it during the national anthem.”

He added: “It was definitely a special event.”

Villanova (10-0) trailed 41-36 at halftime after Notre Dame (9-1) shot 51.5 percent from the field in the first.

But Nova came out of the break a different team defensively, forcing seven Irish turnovers in the second half, compared with two in the first.

Hart was a catalyst with less than 10 minutes left. With Villanova trailing 56-51, he finished a layup in traffic and after a defensive stop, converted another tough lay-in.

“No matter what the score is, just make the right play,” Hart said. “Whether we’re up 20, I have to make the right play; whether we’re down 20, I have to make the right play.”

After a timeout by Notre Dame with 9:28 remaining, Eric Paschall blocked Steve Vasturia’s jumper. Hart found the loose ball and assisted on Jalen Brunson’s go-ahead layup.

Vasturia hit a go-ahead three with 6:31 left to put the Irish up one, but Hart drove to the basket on Nova’s next possession and was fouled. The Wildcats led 63-62 after he made both.

Brunson went to the line for a one-and-one with 55.5 seconds left and Villanova leading 68-66. He made both attempts, and after Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson missed a three, the Irish intentionally fouled Darryl Reynolds, who sealed the win with two free throws.

Hart played physically on both ends, solidifying his candidacy in Player of the Year talks which also include Duke’s Luke Kennard, Kansas’ Frank Mason and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, among others. Perhaps more importantly, he has the Wildcats in position to contend for another title.


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