PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – The Villanova Wildcats raced out to an early lead and steadily pulled away from No. 10 Xavier to post an 89-65 victory Wednesday night before 12,765 at the Wells Fargo Center. The top ranked Wildcats are now 15-1 overall, 3-1 in the BIG EAST while the Musketeers dropped their second straight and are now 15-3 overall, 3-2 in conference action.
Villanova connected on 32-of-58 from the field (.552) and dropped in 12 3-pointers. Redshirt junior Phil Booth registered a new career high with 21 points to lead five Wildcats in double figures. Junior Jalen Brunson added 17 points to go with five assists while Mikal Bridges chipped in with 15 points and a game high nine rebounds. But that was only a part of the happy news.
Better still, the Wildcats took a step forward defensively, limiting the potent Musketeers to 65 points and .414 shooting, including just 3-of-17 from beyond the 3-point arc (.176).
“That was a very good performance by us against an outstanding team,” stated Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “We’ve been struggling a little bit defensively and our guys really stepped up tonight defensively. It was the leadership of our captains. Phil and Mikal. They had good offensive games but what was big is that they’re our two best defensive players and two of the guys committed to rebounding the most.”
The Wildcats had surrendered an average of 94 points per game in their first three BIG EAST outings.
“It started back at the Hofstra game,” noted Wright of the slide at the defensive end of the court. “We started seeing we were lax defensively in our habits and rebounding. It was Christmas, we didn’t have a lot of time to practice, saw it in the DePaul game, and then it just blew up at Butler. We saw it coming, we just didn’t have time to practice.
“The week after Butler we got to practice. We were a little bit better against Marquette and then got more practice before this game. We just have to keep working at it.”
The Wildcats jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead on the strength of 3-pointers from Booth and Brunson. At the first official timeout, they held a 12-4 advantage with four Villanova players already in the scoring column.
A thundering alley-oop slam by Eric Paschall off a feed from Booth brought the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center to its feet as the Wildcats moved out to a 22-9 lead over the Musketeers with 12;12 to play in the opening half. But Xavier reeled off eight straight points to narrow its deficit to 22-17 with just more than eight minutes remaining in the period.
The Musketeers would get no closer.
Villanova maintained its composure and stretched the lead. Most significant in the final minutes of the period was a defensive effort that helped VU build a 40-28 halftime lead by limiting the Musketeers to 11-of-32 (.344) shooting from the field in the period.
“You can’t just say, ‘we’re going to play defense again,’” Wright stated. “You have to get back to your habits and playing together. Our upperclassmen know how to do it.”
“People feeling they could score against us at any time is something we took personally,” added Booth. “Coaches, captains and all the way down through the team.”
Villanova outscored Xavier 15-8 in the first four plus minutes of the second half and never saw its lead drop below a dozen the rest of the way. It was the fifth time in as many seasons that the ‘Cats delivered a convincing home-court victory over the Musketeers.
The Wildcats next head north to meet St. John’s in a BIG EAST clash Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. (Fox Business Channel and 610 Sports Radio).
The 2017-18 Villanova Basketball season is presented by KeyBank.