CINCINNATI — For 32 minutes Xavier was more than playing heads-up with one of the best college basketball teams in the country. The Musketeers were beating Villanova and were in position to finish the deal.
Then Villanova showed why it could be a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Xavier has talent on its roster. A tantalizing amount of it. Experience to match that talent level is playing catch up. There was no catching No. 6 Villanova down the stretch of the Wildcats’ 78-66 win Saturday afternoon at Cintas Center on Senior Day.
Xavier made just one of its final 11 field goal attempts, including missing its last six shots, as Villanova outscored the Musketeers 22-9 over the final 7:57 of the game. Xavier led by seven points at halftime, 40-33. It led by nine points early in the second half and still had a 57-56 advantage when freshman Trevon Bluiett drained a 3-pointer from the right wing with 8:49 left to play.
That’s when Villanova, now 27-2 overall and 14-2 in the Big East, took its game to another level. It’s a level the Musketeers (18-12, 8-9) don’t have yet. Maybe they will in the future. Matt Stainbrook and Dee Davis are the only seniors who won’t be around next season. Bluiett (12 points) and sophomores Jalen Reynolds (15 points, six rebounds) and Myles Davis (eight points, five assists) portend a bright future.
They were no match down the stretch for a team that had four players score in double figures, none of whom were named Darrun Hilliard, who is Villanova’s leading scorer and is a candidate to be the Big East player of the year. Hilliard was held to six points. Junior Dylan Ennis had 16 points, including making four 3-pointers in the first half. Junior Ryan Arcidiacono had 12 of his 15 points after halftime. Sophomore Kris Jenkins, all 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds of him, was 4-of-7 on 3-pointers. Junior forward Daniel Ochefu had 10 points and eight rebounds.
"I think a big part of their game plan, and intelligently, was to stop Darrun Hilliard," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. "They were doubling him. Every time he drove they were loading to him. You’ve got to have other guys step up. I thought Dylan did a great job early recognizing that. That’s the strength of our team, the balance and the fact that everybody shares the ball and everybody defends."
Villanova likes to shoot 3-pointers. The Wildcats made 15 of them in an 88-75 win against Xavier in Philadelphia in January. They added six more in the first half Saturday and then shot 7-of-13 in the second half. Xavier was hot in the first half, making seven of 13 shots from behind the arc. It was as cold as Mother Nature has been the past two weeks in the second half, making just 1-of-9 attempted 3-pointers.
That one trey by Bluiett gave Xavier its last lead. Villanova answered with a 14-2 run that began with Jenkins hitting his second 3-pointer in a row with just under eight minutes to play. While Xavier’s offense hit a funk â the Musketeers scored points on just four of their final 14 possessions â Villanova got points on 10 of its last 15 possessions, including making six of its last 10 field goal attempts.
"We didn’t get out to the shooters," said Dee Davis, who scored seven points and had nine assists. "We did a good job the first 32 minutes of the game but the final eight we didn’t get to shooters on time and they made a lot of shots in a row it seemed like."
Xavier has one regular season game remaining next Saturday at Creighton. It’s going to need that win plus play well in the Big East tournament if it hopes to be playing in the NCAA tournament. The Blue Jays may be next-to-last in the Big East standings but they were in last place when they came into the Cintas Center on Feb. 4 and left with a 79-72 overtime win.
"There is no shame in losing to Villanova," said Xavier head coach Chris Mack. "They’ve beaten 27 teams. We’ve got more basketball to play and we have to get ready. We’ve got a week to get ready for Creighton, a team that beat us earlier in the year. We have to go to Creighton and respond."
Mack wasn’t taking the loss as 32 minutes of a moral victory, however.
"They should be a No. 1 seed," said Mack. "Hell no. I can’t (take) moral victories. I thought our team was ready to beat Villanova but we just weren’t. Especially on our home court. The energy was great. I thought our team was locked in. Just some of the circus threes that go in for them. Arguably the player of the year goes oh-for-five from the three-point line and you still feel like you can’t stop them defensively. That’s how talented they are. That’s how much they spread the floor. They’re good."
Can Xavier be that good at some point?
"I don’t have that crystal ball yet. I’d like to think so," said Mack. "A lot of hard work, a lot of summertime development, a lot of weight room work. That’s what happens when you become experienced. I’d like to think that we have a good young nucleus that could eventually play to that level but that’s for another day."