The No. 3-ranked Villanova Wildcats will attempt to win their fourth consecutive regular season tournament when they battle UCF in the championship game of the Gildan Charleston Classic Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. ET.
Villanova (4-0) defeated Western Michigan and Wake Forest to reach the final while UCF (3-0) knocked off Mississippi State and the College of Charleston.
The Villanova senior class has been part of a group that has registered an impressive 101-13 record along with the 2013 Battle 4 Atlantis, 2014 Legends Classic and 2015 NIT Season Tipoff titles in consecutive years.
In the 19-point semifinal win over Wake Forest, guard Josh Hart set a new career-high with 30 points while Mikal Bridges also scored a career-best 19 points.
“Second to our defense, we were really efficient offensively,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said to reporters after the win over the Demon Deacons. “Josh has not just been playing well, but efficiently. So when you get into a game like this, where there are a lot of offensive possessions, and you are playing efficiently, you are going to get some numbers.”
Hart made 11 of his 14 shots, including 6-of-8 from beyond the arc.
“It really comes down to making the right play,” Hart said. “We came in with the mindset of, 'Do the right thing, make the right play.' The ball was really moving well today, it wasn't sticking. I think that was the biggest part of the efficiency.”
UCF advanced to the championship by virtue of a 60-40 victory over the College of Charleston. UCF's defense was outstanding as it held the Cougars to 40 points on 26.8 percent shooting.
The last time the Knights played a defending national champion came on Nov. 25, 2011 when they defeated Connecticut 68-63 in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. UCF lost to Harvard in the title game.
UCF coach Johnny Dawkins understands what the challenge looks like in ousting Villanova, especially since he lost to him last year at Stanford in the NIT Season Tip-off.
“Jay's a great coach and a friend,” Dawkins told reporters. “He's done a terrific job with his team. I've watched them over the years, what they've done, he's built an amazing program. We have a chance to play for a championship. It will be a great opportunity for our guys to compete against one of the best teams in the nation.”
UCF graduate transfer Nick Baynard has earned double figures in rebounding in all three wins and he had 10 rebounds, four points and three assists in the win over the Cougars. Before joining UCF, Banyard had reached double figures in rebounds just once in three seasons at New Mexico and Illinois State.
B.J. Taylor had 10 assists and zero turnovers in the quarterfinal victory and followed that performance with 21 points in the semifinal round. He leads the Knights in scoring at 17.3 points per game.
The defense must rise to another level against Villanova, one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country.
“Defensively, I thought it was one of the best efforts we've had this season,” Dawkins said after the 20-point victory over the College of Charleston. “Both halves, I thought we were as engaged as we've been this year.”