Now that Villanova finally has won a game after building a big first-half lead, the Wildcats appear to have heightened confidence going into their final regular-season game and the Big East tournament.
The Wildcats, who were 0-3 after building up first-half leads of at least 18 points this season, rolled up a 19-point lead over Rutgers midway through the opening period Thursday night and saw it cut to a precarious one-point advantage in the second half, but held on for a 77-71 win over the Scarlet Knights at Piscataway, N.J.
Villanova (12-17 overall, 5-12 Big East) wraps up its regular season Saturday at the Pavilion against Cincinnati (21-9, 11-6), which is trying to move off the NCAA bubble while, at the same time, seeking a two-round bye in the Big East tournament.
The Wildcats hope to continue their momentum in their home finale and try to keep it going into Tuesday’s start of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
A big help to ‘Nova on Thursday night was the return of all of their injured players – Maalik Wayns (knee), JayVaughn Pinkston (ankle) and James Bell (ankle) – even if all three were at less than 100 percent.
“It felt good to have everybody out there,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. “I feel good about what these guys can do. I hope we can get it going quick here and maybe make some noise in the Big East tournament.”
The Wildcats shot 69 percent in the first half against Rutgers and led 48-32, scoring two more points than they did in the entire previous game against Georgetown. But they were horrible offensively for much of the second half, shooting 27 percent and committing 12 turnovers.
But after the Scarlet Knights cut the deficit to one point on two occasions, the Wildcats steadied themselves with good defensive play. Pinkston and Ty Johnson, who played 21 minutes mostly in relief of a foul-plagued Wayns, played well at both ends.
Pinkston and Wayns led Villanova with 18 points apiece.
“We learned from games against UConn and Notre Dame,” Wayns said, mentioning two of the games where his team blew big leads and lost. “We know how to deal with it. This is a game of runs. We took their best shot and we came back and got stops, and we were able to pull the game out.
“I think we’re playing well. We had a couple of great practices and now we have a game under our belt. It’s going to give us confidence going into the Cincinnati game and the Big East tournament.”
The Bearcats, who ended a 6-2 February with a 72-61 win over No. 8 Marquette, are led in scoring by sophomore Sean Kilpatrick (14.6 points per game) and senior Dion Dixon (13.5). Senior Yancy Gates is one of the league’s top rebounders, ranking third with a 9.5 average.
Cincinnati defeated Villanova, 82-78, on Jan. 14 at home.
The Wildcats enter Saturday’s game looking at a finish of anywhere from 11th to 14th in the Big East. They are battling St. John’s, Rutgers and Pittsburgh for positioning and seeding in the tournament.
A victory over the Bearcats would put Villanova in at No. 11, 12 or 13 depending the outcome of St. John’s at Rutgers and Pittsburgh at Connecticut. The Red Storm, Scarlet Knights and Panthers all can move into a four-way tie with the Wildcats at 6-12, and only the Big East office can figure that tiebreaker out.
Should Villanova lose and finish at 5-13 in the league, it most likely would finish 14th except for one scenario – wins by St. John’s and Pitt – that would place the Cats at No. 13.