Villanova capitalizes on Syracuse's poor shooting, turnovers

PHILADELPHIA -- Dante Cunningham never had a game like this against a Big East team.

Cunningham matched a career high with 31 points and grabbed nine rebounds to help Villanova (No. 16 ESPN/USA Today, No. 17 AP) roll to its fifth straight win, 102-85 over No. 20 Syracuse on Saturday.

"I never really think about whether it's a big game or who it's against," Cunningham said. "You've just got to go out there and play. Every game's a big game just because Villanova's playing."

Cunningham's play this year is one reason why the Wildcats (19-4, 7-3 Big East) have found themselves surprisingly near the top of the conference standings. They've won mostly on defense, but got off to a sizzling start from the floor and never let the Orange make a serious threat.

Cunningham scored 18 points in the first half and Villanova was quickly up 20, scoring easy baskets off the break thanks one sloppy Syracuse turnover after another.

"When you come out as a basketball player and make shots like to start the game, you make everything else easy," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Paced by Cunningham and their two Coreys, the Wildcats reached their biggest point total ever in a game against Syracuse and hit the 100-point mark for the second time this season. They also scored 90-plus points in back-to-back Big East games for the first time since 2003.

"It all starts with coming out and banging shots like that," Wright said.

The defense was still there, too.

The Orange (18-6, 6-5) went nearly 10 minutes without a field goal in the first half and committed 13 turnovers in the half that led to 21 Villanova points. The Orange hit some late 3s to try and make a game of it, only to be turned back by a Villanova team that scored the big buckets whenever it wanted.

Corey Stokes hit three 3s and scored 16 points for Villanova. Shane Clark had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Corey Fisher had 14, also with three 3s. Fisher made perhaps the play of the game when he made a crashing layup off a turnover and hit the free throw for a 40-23 lead.

Cunningham previously scored 31 against Fordham and this was perhaps the best game of the senior's career. He started early, slipping underneath Arinze Onuaku for an easy basket during a 10-0 run that earned the Syracuse squad a sharp and lengthy glare from coach Jim Boeheim during a timeout.

Cunningham went 12-for-15 from the floor, 7-for-12 from the free-throw line and helped Villanova take a 46-39 rebounding edge.

"Dante is learning how to be a really confident offensive player," Wright said. "I was really happy he kept shooting the ball."

Reynolds and Fisher hit 3s for a 20-9 lead that sent the crowd of 20,390 into a frenzy. The Wildcats always pack the place at their off-campus NBA home and this was no exception. Former Orange QB -- and Eagles star -- Dononvan McNabb watched behind the scorer's table in a blue Syracuse jacket.

The Orange simply couldn't get anything going and lost for the fifth time in their last six games. Jonny Flynn scored 22 points and Eric Devendorf had 21.

"You just can't be down 20 on the road against a team the quality of Villanova," Boeheim said.

Syracuse hit seven of its 3s in the second half and Devendorf made one that sliced the lead to 58-44. Flynn hit a jumper that finally got the Orange within 10, only to have Cunningham answer with a turnaround jumper and Scottie Reynolds nailed a 3. Stokes added another 3 for an 18-point lead and Villanova would stretch it all the way to 21 points. They never let the Orange make another challenge.

Boeheim knew the disastrous first-half effort was simply too much for the Orange to overcome.

"We just can't afford to give them, or anybody easy baskets," Boeheim said. "It wasn't really our defense as much as it was our offense was so poor."