No. 6 Villanova takes Big East, 77-70 over Xavier
CINCINNATI (AP) Nobody on the current Villanova roster had even been born the last time the Wildcats stood alone atop the Big East.
The 32-year drought ended Thursday night when Darrun Hilliard scored 19 points and No. 6 Villanova clinched the outright Big East championship for the first time since the 1981-82 season by holding off undermanned Xavier 77-70.
The Wildcats, playing before a hostile standing-room only crowd of 10,340 in their first visit to Cintas Center, overcame a determined Musketeers team in what Villanova coach Jay Wright described as a ”great, intense college basketball environment.”
”You’re not going to win championships unless you win on the road,” Wright said. ”We have great respect for this league. To win this league is a hell of an accomplishment.”
JayVaughn Pinkston added 15 points – eight in the last 3:20 – James Bell finished with 12 and Ryan Arcidiacono chipped in 11 as the Wildcats (27-3, 15-2 Big East) extended their school record for regular-season wins with their fifth straight and 11th in their last 12 games.
They also clinched the top seed in the Big East tournament, which starts Wednesday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
”This is a big accomplishment,” Bell said. ”It’s a testament to how hard we’ve worked, but we can’t stop there.”
The Wildcats went into the night with a 1 1-2 game lead over No. 13 Creighton in the Big East and two games remaining. The Bluejays have one game to play.
Villanova, which last shared the title in a co-championship with Syracuse in 2005-06, wraps up its regular season Saturday at home against Georgetown.
Justin Martin had 20 points for Xavier (20-11, 10-8) while Semaj Christon added 18 points and Isaiah Philmore finished with 15. The Musketeers ended the regular season with consecutive losses.
Xavier struggled from 3-point range finishing 6 of 23, while Villanova was 9 for 23.
The game was Xavier’s first without 6-foot-10 junior center Matt Stainbrook, who started each of the Musketeers’ previous 30 before straining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in their 71-62 loss at Seton Hall on Monday. Stainbrook watched the game from the bench wearing a tan suit and bow tie.
”Us not having Matt was tough, but I think we learned more about each other,” Philmore said. ”It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, obviously, but we stuck together. It just wasn’t enough. Sometimes, it’s not always enough.”
Xavier’s regular-season finale was its second consecutive home game against a Top 10 team and the second straight to attract a standing-room only crowd.
The Wildcats never trailed after Arcidiacono made two free throws for a 29-28 lead with 5:11 left in the first half. Villanova, which beat Xavier 81-58 on Feb. 3 for the Musketeers’ worst loss of the season, led by as many as 12 points. The lead dwindled to three before Josh Hart and Bell made two free throws each in the final 19.4 seconds.
”We knew they wouldn’t go away,” Wright said. ”They played without one of their best players. We caught a break there.”
The Wildcats had no surprises, Musketeers coach Chris Mack said.
”They were what we saw on film,” he said. ”This was our first game without Matt, so that was a little bit different, but we competed. We didn’t quite have enough to beat Villanova.”
Hilliard, averaging 14.1 points per game, had 15 to help the Wildcats take a 41-36 halftime lead.
Martin, who went into the game averaging 11.2 points, scored 12 in the first half for Xavier.