EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- Instead of deferring to the seniors as he had earlier in his career, sophomore forward Dante Cunningham is showcasing his talent and making Villanova a much better team.
Cunningham almost single-handedly thwarted a second-half Seton Hall rally with 13 straight points in leading the Wildcats (17-7, 5-5 Big East) to a wild 78-69 victory on Saturday.
"Last year he went into games and basically his role was not to get into the way of the other guys," Villanova coach Jay Wright said of Cunningham, who finished with 14 points. "This year we are trying to teach him to be a dominant player. Well, maybe not teach him because he has the ability. We're trying to convince him he has the ability to be a dominant player."
That was never more evident than after Seton Hall (12-11, 3-7) closed to 50-47 on a 3-pointer by Jamar Nutter with 11:32 to go.
Villanova broke the Pirates' press and Cunningham got the ball on the right wing. He made an explosive move to the basket, jumped well above the rim and delivered a monster dunk on a three-point play to ignite a personal 8-2 run. He also had two free throws and another three-point play in the spurt that gave the Wildcats a 60-52 lead.
"It looked like he went to another level once he jumped in the air," Villanova senior guard Mike Nardi said of the big dunk. "Again, we've seen it before in practice, and we've seen it in games. We just want him to be more consistent with it."
Cunningham, who battled the flu earlier this week, thought the dunk was his best of the year.
"Coach has been telling me on the break to go for it," Cunningham said. "He doesn't care if I get a charge or a block or a collision in the air. I went for it, and it worked for me today."
Senior Curtis Sumpter had 21 points and 10 rebounds to lead Villanova to its fourth straight win and sixth in eight games. Nardi added 16 points and Scottie Reynolds had 11 for the Wildcats, who had a 41-20 rebounding edge and lived up to their reputation as one of the conference's best free throw shooting team, hitting 34-of-41.
Nutter had 21 points to lead the Pirates, who lost their fifth straight conference game. Larry Davis and fellow freshman Eugene Harvey added 15 points apiece. Brian Laing, Seton Hall's leading scorer with a 16.6 point average, fouled out without scoring.
"I think they went after him because they knew he is an important guy for us, that plus the whistle took him right out for us," Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez said of Laing, who was 0-for-5 from the field.
After Cunningham's run, Seton Hall stayed close and eventually narrowed the gap to 73-69 on Nutter's fifth 3-pointer with 2:47 to go. However, the Pirates missed their final four shots, and Villanova made five free throws down the stretch, including three by Nardi.
Gonzalez did not criticize the officials after seeing his team limited to 24 free throws and having four of his nine players foul out. Two others finished with four fouls.
Seton Hall, which had backup center Mani Messy leave the team earlier this week, would have had to play a man short if five players fouled out, according to NCAA rules.
"We have to adjust to the officials," Gonzalez said. "If they are blowing the whistle every two seconds, we have to adjust. If they are calling a foul on one end and not the other, we have to adjust to that."