A sellout crowd of 16,165 was at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, Saturday afternoon for the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic. The NCAA basketball doubleheader featured No. 1 Villanova taking on No. 23 Notre Dame in the first game, followed by Penn State and in-state rival Pittsburgh in the nightcap.
The event was a benefit for the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund, which helps support the education of children of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
While Villanova and Pittsburgh may have come out on top, Notre Dame and Penn State could be the teams that become stronger because of these battles.
Villanova Edges Notre Dame thanks to Josh Hart’s Ridiculous Performance
Both the Wildcats and the Fighting Irish came into the game with 9–0 records. Notre Dame started out strong, and at the 4:30 mark led 33–22. Later in the half, Villanova went on a run and cut into the lead, but the Irish were up 41–36 at halftime.
Villanova took its first lead on a layup by Jalen Brunson with a little over nine minutes left in the second half. Despite several great plays on both sides, the Wildcats prevailed in a hard-fought 74–66 win.
Josh Hart finished with a double double to lead Villanova with a career-high 37 points and 11 rebounds. The 6’5” guard made three of four three-pointers and all 14 of the free throws he attempted. Hart made the case that he is a leading candidate for national player of the year.
Veterans Steve Vasturia and Matt Farrell each scored 18 points for the Irish. While Villanova, the defending national champions, came out on top, the game was much closer than the final score indicated.
“Notre Dame is an outstanding team, so tough to play against,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “I think Mike [Brey] is one of the best coaches in the country, just makes it so difficult. They are an underrated defensive team.”
Lions Roar Back in the Second Half — But It’s Not Enough
The second game featured the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Panthers dominated the Nittany Lions at both ends of the floor in the first half, nearly doubling the score at 42–22.
Penn State woke up in the second half and cut the Panthers’ lead to five with 1:50 left, 71–66. However Pitt senior Shelton Jeter then hit a dagger three-pointer, and Penn State would not recover. The Panthers held on to defeat the Nittany Lions 81–73, and Michael Yong led the way with 29 points.
"A tale of two halves," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said afterward. "Not sure where we were in the first half. Maybe the bus was late. But we showed up in the second half and competed like a Penn State basketball team.”
Nittany Lions freshman forward Mike Watkins had a double double, with 17 points and 15 rebounds. As he and his classmates continue to mature, Penn State will likely be showing up in a bigger way to test its competition.
Pittsburgh’s first-year coach Kevin Stallings recognized that his team is adjusting to his style and heaped praise on his players, saying, “It’s always my goal for them to have the most fun they have ever had in their careers, and I want this to be an enjoyable year for these guys.”
Overall, the Never Forget Classic was truly impressive.
“I am very honored to be a part of the first one,” said Stallings. “It’s awesome that the place was sold out. It’s awesome where the money is going and to benefit those families.”
And the teams competed at a very high level and showed they have the ingredients to improve through the season. When March Madness arrives, these four teams should be ones to watch.
Photographs by (from top) Rich Schultz/Getty Images; Max Bonnstetter