Last season Mikal Bridges deferred, by choice. This season he is Villanova’s preferred choice.
“My role changed role. Now I have to be more aggressive and be a leader,” Bridges said.
Villanova is on a roll with Bridges well-suited to his new role. The 6-7 junior swing man scored from near and far in tallying 28 points to lead the No. 4 Wildcats to an impressive 88-72 victory over No. 15 Gonzaga Tuesday night in the first game of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Syracuse and Connecticut packed the house for the second game, but neither of the old Big East rivals are ranked and they weren’t the headliners as in the past.
This time it was 2016 national champion Villanova (9-0) and 2017 Final Four participant Gonzaga (7-2) on center stage. “This was a good win for us,” Villanova coach Jay Wright, the former Hofstra coach said. “Gonzaga is a good team.”
But the Zags got burned by Bridges, who hit 8 of 14 from the field, including 5 of 9 on three-pointers, made 7 of 9 free throws, grabbed six rebounds and had two blocks.
He displayed all his skills during a key sequence in the second half. Gonzaga had cut a 17-point deficit to 53-46 with 11:27 left. That’s when Bridges powered inside for a layup, drained a three, soared down the lane for an emphatic tomahawk slam and blocked a Gonzaga shot at the other end.
“I saw a lane and just went up strong,” Bridges said of his highlight-reel dunk. “I was just trying to make a play and be aggressive.”
Suddenly it was 66-51 and the Wildcats were never threatened.
“Last year, Mikal passed the ball to Josh [Hart] and Kris [Jenkins],” Wright said, referencing two top ’Cats who graduated. “This year, it’s his turn. He’s the leader, he’s the captain. He has more freedom and he’ more aggressive.”
Bridges, who leads the Wildcats in scoring at more than 18 points per game, said he was impressed by Gonzaga, despite the relatively easy victory. “They play hard, they defend and they’re well-coached,” Bridges said. “We thought we played good defense and they still shot 48 percent.”
That wasn’t enough because Villanova shot 52 percent, including a robust 47.6 from downtown (10-for-21). Phil Booth also had a big game for Villanova with 20 points while Jalen Brunson, fighting foul trouble all night, contributed 12 points and five assists. Omari Spellman had a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds). Zach Norvell Jr. led Gonzaga with 22 points and Josh Perkins added 16. But the Zags managed only 6 of 22 from beyond the arc thanks to Villanova’s shifting defensive pressure.
“Defense is the main thing,” Bridges said.
And Bridges has become the main man. “I worked out all spring and summer to perfect my game,” he said. “When I do all the little things right, I’m a different player.”
Wright and the Wildcats are building on Bridges’ reconstruction. “He’s getting better and better,” Wright said. “Mentally and skill-wise, he’s ready for it.”