VILLANOVA, Pa. — Halil Kanacevic swung his right arm up like he was taking a hook shot and extended his middle finger toward the Villanova student section.
The Wildcats’ fans howled at the gesture and never stopped pestering Kanacevic with boos each time he touched the ball the rest of the game. Kanacevic was rattled down the stretch and missed the potential go-ahead free throws with 45 seconds left.
His misery turned into bliss for Villanova. James Bell would come down and hit the winning 3-pointer with 29 seconds left to rally Villanova to a 65-61 win over Saint Joseph’s on Tuesday night.
“The kid’s got guts, man,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said of Bell. “He really does. A lot of guts, man. I love having him on our side.”
Kanacevic made it 50-47 with a 3-pointer when he gestured toward the student section. The crowd went wild as Saint Joseph’s headed into a timeout. Kanacevic walked out of the huddle to the sounds of an obscene chant at his direction. A referee warned him not to make the motion again. He would be loudly booed each time he touched the ball and never recovered from his lapse of maturity.
With the Hawks up one with 45.8 seconds left, Kanacevic was fouled and went to the line in front of a student section that delighted in taunting him. He missed both free throws under pressure. Mouphtaou Yarou grabbed the rebound and called a timeout to set up the next possession.
Bell buried the 3 from the left wing with 29 seconds left for a 63-61 lead.
Kanacevic had one more chance to redeem himself. With no room to pass on an inbound play, Kanacevic tried to bounce the ball off a Villanova defender. But it shot off him and went out of bounds and Villanova (6-4) held on for the win.
“It’s just so much fun to be in these games,” Wright said. “Great games, great energy.”
The Wildcats beat the Hawks for the first time in two seasons and extended their series lead in the annual Big 5 game to 45-25.
Bell and JayVaughn Pinkston scored 12 points for the Wildcats. Maurice Sutton had nine rebounds for a Villanova team that badly needed a close victory after crushing losses to La Salle and Columbia.
Bell bailed out the Wildcats in a big way.
“I was actually the last look on the play,” Bell said. “He put me in great position to do what I do best.”
Langston Galloway led the Hawks (5-3) with 22 points and Carl Jones had 16. Kanacevic’s 3 was his only field goal of the game and he had four points.
“We just made some out-of-character plays and plays that were home runs instead of singles,” coach Phil Martelli said.
Ronald Roberts Jr. hit the go-ahead free-throws with 3:42 left for the Hawks. Galloway hit his fifth 3-pointer and punched his fist in the air after the lead-stretching shot that silenced the Villanova crowd.
Daniel Ochefu powered his way inside for a bucket that pulled Villanova within one and set up yet another Holy War game to come down to the final minute.
The Hawks lost their poise in the second half. Kanacevic avoided a technical for his actions but the Hawks were whistled for one shortly after when
C.J. Aiken’s blocked shot led to more words and some more preening.
Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said he didn’t see Kanacevic flip off the fans because of the crowd around the bench heading into the timeout.
“I just told the whole team that we acted immaturely at times,” he said.
The Wildcats needed a late charge in the first half to take control.
Wright was furious over a non-foul call and had to be held back by his assistants. Wright was hit with a technical and Saint Joseph’s took advantage from the free-throw line to build a five-point lead.
The Wildcats committed nine turnovers in the first half and their offense looked out of sync and unsure on numerous possessions. Bell and Ryan Arcidiacono shook Villanova out of its funk and woke up a quiet crowd with back-to-back 3s to send the Wildcats into halftime with a 33-31 lead.
The Wildcats are coming off a 19-loss season after a seven-season run as one of the teams to beat in the Big East. But a fractured conference has put the program’s future under constant scrutiny with several options on the table.
“You hear something every day,” Wright said. “You talk people, you talk to board members, you talk to your AD. You want to know. We are talking about all the time. It’s a challenge.”