VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) - Corey Stokes had first-half numbers that usually mean bad news for Villanova.
``We know at halftime if Corey Stokes has two points, we're in trouble,' coach Jay Wright said.
Sure enough, the eighth-ranked Wildcats trailed Rutgers by four points.
Once Stokes popped off some screens and found his shot in transition, he was back in form and so was Villanova. Stokes scored 23 points, Corey Fisher had 19 and Villanova won its seventh straight game, 81-65 over the Scarlet Knights on Sunday.
``I never lose confidence in myself or my teammates,' Stokes said.
With good reason.
Stokes rebounded from an 0-for-3 first half to score eight points in the opening 2:11 of the second for the Wildcats (12-1, 1-0 Big East). Stokes, Villanova's leading scorer at 16.4 points, hit two 3s during an 11-0 run that wiped out a four-point halftime deficit and gave the Wildcats a lead they would never give up.
Stokes' first-half points came on two free throws. Then he founds his stroke and his four 3s were one more than Rutgers managed. He was 9 for 10 from the free throw line in 38 minutes and is playing the best basketball of his career.
Led by Jonathan Mitchell's 17 points, Rutgers (9-4, 0-1) never faded until the waning minutes. The Scarlet Knights lost their second straight game following a six-game winning streak.
James Beatty scored 14 points for the Scarlet Knights. Gilvydas Biruta, who finished with 12 points, was ejected in the final minute for a flagrant foul.
For the second straight time, a team coached by Mike Rice proved a major annoyance for Wright's Wildcats. He was in charge at Robert Morris last season when the Colonials led 55-47 with 4:19 left before losing to the Wildcats in overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
This time, it was a strong shooting start and active defense that gave the Scarlet Knights a 37-33 halftime lead.
The Wildcats were just too talented to be upset each time.
``You've either got to be tough and grind it out and know it's not going to be pretty, or not,' Wright said. ``That's the Big East.'
Villanova, coming off an emotional victory over city-rival Temple, shook off a sluggish first half to run wild over Rutgers.
Stokes opened the half with his first field goal of the game, then Fisher and Stokes hit consecutive 3s for a 41-37 lead. That capped the 11-0 run in just 2:11 that swung all the momentum to Villanova.
Beatty hit his first 3 of the game with 2:48 left to pull the Scarlet Knights to 68-61.
Antonio Pena, who earlier made a sweet bounce pass out of traffic to Stokes for a 3, went inside for a 70-61 lead.
Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou are forming one of the top frontcourts in Wright's 10 seasons. Yarou grabbed a tough offensive rebound and went straight up for the basket and free throw for a 56-50 lead. Stokes followed with a 3.
The Wildcats won their 44th straight game at their on-campus home, the Pavilion.
They outrebounded Rutgers 40-21 - 17-7 on the offensive boards. Rutgers shot 38 percent in the second half.
``As long you keep getting stops, it's going to pay off and that's something we take pride in,' Fisher said.
The Scarlet Knights showed some fight after getting dominated by North Carolina 78-55 on Dec. 28th in Madison Square Garden.
``They laid down at North Carolina, they didn't lay down tonight,' Rice said. ``That's a positive. But we just got in our own way. They always seemed to be doing something they shouldn't have done. We'll get better at it.'
The Scarlet Knights hit seven of their first 10 shots, then survived a 7-minute stretch without a field goal, to take the surprising halftime lead.
Rutgers pounced on the surprisingly sloppy Wildcats. Villanova made nine turnovers that led to 12 points for Rutgers, just a tick off its average of 11.7 per game.
Throw in Stokes' slow start and it's little surprise the Scarlet Knights had a solid first half.
Stokes and the Wildcats made sure that's where Rutgers' fun ended.
``We came off the Temple game, which was an emotional game, we come in here, this place is dead,' Wright said. ``For 20 minutes, we kind of lost who we were. So we had to come out, keep grinding and do what we do.'
The Associated Press News Service
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