NEW YORK (AP) — Mikal Bridges hit Gonzaga with a dunk that rocked the Garden and followed with a block that sapped the Zags’ spirit.
Against an NCAA title game finalist and in prime time on basketball’s biggest stage, Bridges had his coming out performance as one of the top players in the nation.
Just check the replay of that sequence for confirmation.
“I just saw a lane and tried to go up and be strong,” Bridges said.
Bridges hit five 3s and scored a career-high 28 points to lead No. 4 Villanova to an 88-72 victory over No. 12 Gonzaga in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
The Wildcats (9-0) flexed their muscle on familiar turf and proved again they are again national championship contenders in their first real test of the season.
Bridges, a 6-foot-7 junior guard, put on a show in front of scores of NBA scouts and flashed a lottery-pick worthy game. His defining moment came in the second half: Bridges slashed the lane and unleashed a monster right-handed dunk over 6-11 center Jacob Larsen. Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins tried the same move on the next set only to have Bridges swat the ball out of bounds with a block that had the Nova fans that filled MSG roaring on each replay.
“Ever since my freshman year, I’ve laid the ball up a lot and coaches, the seniors, they used to get on me for that,” Bridges said.
Bridges made 8 of 14 shots in the first meeting between two programs that have ranked among the best over the last 15 years. Villanova won the 2016 national championship and the Zags lost the 2017 title game to North Carolina.
Bridges was such a dominant presence, he even startled one Zag into a turnover when he heard footsteps on a fastbreak.
“He probably could have done more of this last year,” coach Jay Wright said. “He’s the leader. He’s the captain. So he’s playing with a lot more freedom. Aggressiveness, as he says.”
Zach Norvell Jr. led Gonzaga (7-2) with 22 points and Perkins had 16.
“They put it on us pretty good,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Bridges cut off the Bulldogs each time they made a small run. The Zags inched to seven early in the second half and Bridges connected on a 3. He came up with a tough bucket inside and drew a foul on one possession and followed with a 3 on the next to make it a 10-game game.
Bridges dunk-and-block in front of the scouts destroyed whatever mojo Gonzaga had left and the Wildcats won for an NCAA-best 109th time since 2014.
“We don’t care who’s out in the crowd. We play for each other,” Bridges said
The Wildcats played every bit like a national championship favorite in a first half where they picked apart the Zags. Bridges had 12 points, Phil Booth had 11 of his 20 points and the Wildcats hit six 3s to build a 43-30 lead.
Villanova is more than a few NBA-ready scorers carrying the offense. Eric Paschall missed both of his shots in the half but it was his kickout passes on consecutive possessions that led to 3s from Booth and Bridges. Donte DiVincenzo made it three straight 3s that brought the Nova fans to their feet.
Booth, who took a medical redshirt last season, proved his twice surgically repaired left knee was fine on a high-flying dunk and even the players got loud at the Garden: Villanova’s deep reserves bolted from the bench and bellowed “Charge! Charge! Charge!” late in the half and sure enough the foul was called on Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura.
The Wildcats made the short 105-mile trip compared to nearly 2,600 miles for the Zags and had the decided fan support at MSG. The Wildcats, a regular at the Garden in the Big East Tournament, could hoist that trophy in front of the faithful again in March in New York.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs lost their second game after losing just one in the regular season on the way to the title game. The Bulldogs were picked this year to finish second in the WCC, behind archrival Saint Mary’s.
Villanova: The Wildcats followed a school-record 19 3s in their last game against Saint Joseph’s with 10 against Gonzaga. What’s it going to take to lose? “Us relaxing,” Bridges said.
The Wildcats shot 52 percent from the field and became the first team in 65 games to shoot better than 50 percent against the Zags. Gonzaga starters Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson fouled out.
Gonzaga: The Zags play against Pac 12 Washington on Sunday.
Villanova: The Wildcats look to extend their dominance in Philadelphia’s city series Sunday against La Salle.