The No.6 Villanova Wildcats clinched their first outright BIG EAST title in 32 years by escaping a late run by the Xavier Wildcats 77-70. Villanova improves to 27-3 with the victory and Xavier falls to 20-11.
The first half was a back and forth battle, as neither team could seem to separate itself. Xavier got off to a quick 7-0 lead in the first 2:18, but that's about as close to pulling away as either team got. During the first 20 minutes, there were five ties and seven lead changes. That previously mentioned seven-point advantage early on for the Musketeers was as big as the lead got for either team in the half.
In the second half, Villanova began to assert its dominance right out of the gates. Jay Wright and Co. held nothing less than a five-point lead and were up by 12 points with 1:26 left in the game. It seemed as if the Wildcats were going to cruise to the conference clinching victory.
Xavier didn't get the memo and refused to go away. The Musketeers went on an 11-2 run over the next 1:02 to come all the way back and cut the lead to 73-70 with 24 seconds left. During that period, Villanova shot 0-1 from the field, 2-4 from the free throw line. Xavier meanwhile, hit three bombs from behind the arc to pace a furious comeback attempt.
The effort was not enough, as the Cats made four of their next five free throws to ice the game away and secure the title.
Villanova really made its money on the boards throughout the entire contest. The top rebounding team in the conference continued its dominance on the glass in this game. Villanova finished with 42 rebounds, including 12 on the offensive end, and outrebounded The X by 10.
This discrepancy just showed how much Xavier missed leading rebounder Matt Stainbrook. Stainbrook entered today with 7.8 rpg, more than 2.5 more than the next leading rebounder on the squad. The big man didn't end up going for the Musketeers today, after straining a ligament in his left knee during Monday night's loss at Seton Hall. Without his presence in the middle, Xavier was left with a huge void that no one was able to fill.
On the offensive side of the ball for Nova, junior Darrun Hillaird continued his recent stretch of red-hot play. Hillaird finished the game with 19 points, his fifth straight game with double figures and the fourth straight game in which he led the team in scoring. He also continued to his efficien playt on offense, shooting at least 60% from the field for the third time in the last four games.
Behind Hilliard, three of the other four starters finished with double digits. Senior JayVaughn Pinkston finished with 15 points, including a perfect 5-5 clip from the charity stripe. Leading scorer James Bell put up 12 points to go along with his team-leading eight rebounds. Rounding out the double digit scoring for the Cats was Ryan Arcidiacono, who tallied 11 points.
Much like in the rebounding battle, it was evident that Xavier missed Stainbrook's scoring as well. Justin Martin ended up leading the team in points, after finishing today's game with 20 points, his most proficient output since a February 19 win against DePaul.
Outside of Martin, two other Musketeers also finished the game in double figures. Leading scorer Semaj Christon finished with 18 points, despite a 0/4 performance from 3-point range. Rounding out the Xavier players in double digits was Isaiah Philmore, who was playing in his final game ever at the Cintas Center.
With the no.1 seed in the BIG EAST Tournament now locked up, Villanova is playing purely for another no. 1 seed, this time in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats will continue their quest towards that achievement in their last regular season game on Saturday against the Georgetown Hoyas. Meanwhile, Xavier's regular season has now come to a close. The Musketeers missed out clinching the no. 3 seed in next week's conference tournament, and will have to wait to see where they get seeded for the tourney, which begins next Wednesday.