MILWAUKEE – From playing Marquette the last couple of years, Villanova knows it had better be ready for a 40-minute slugfest that’s going to feature plenty of offense and maybe a surprise like what happened here last year.
This time, however, the top-ranked Wildcats were successful in staving off the Golden Eagles’ bid for a second consecutive upset on the Al McGuire Court of the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Clinging to a three-point lead, Villanova came up with the key plays in the final minute – a steal by freshman Collin Gillespie and a second-chance basket by Donte DiVincenzo with 15 seconds to play – to secure an 85-82 victory before a noisy crowd of 17,120.
Playing without Phil Booth, their fourth-leading scorer who is out indefinitely with a fractured bone in his right hand, the Wildcats (20-1, 7-1 Big East) got 31 points from Jalen Brunson and 23 from DiVincenzo.
Coach Jay Wright will be the first to tell you that Marquette (13-8, 4-5) did not make it easy. The Golden Eagles shot 50.8 percent, the first time the Cats had an opponent make more than 50 percent of their attempts against them since their one loss of the season, Dec. 30 at Butler.
“They’re one of the most difficult teams to defend,” Wright said. “I thought in the first half, we couldn’t stop anything. In the second half we stopped them a little bit and that was the difference. We got a couple of extra stops in the second half but not a lot. They’re a really, really good team, incredibly difficult to prepare for.”
The Wildcats lost 74-72 in their last appearance here on Jan. 24, 2017 as the nation’s No. 1 team. The Golden Eagles, who gave Villanova a tough time in a 100-90 loss Jan. 6 at the Wells Fargo Center, kept scrapping Sunday.
They drew to within one point with 6 minutes, 39 seconds to play and by three twice, the last time at 83-80 on a three-pointer by Andrew Rowsey (29 points) with 1:31 remaining and the crowd smelling blood.
After a Brunson miss, Marquette’s Sacar Anim went to the basket but was stripped by Gillespie. The Wildcats came upcourt where Mikal Bridges rebounded Brunson’s missed shot and fed DiVincenzo for the clinching bucket.
“I just saw the ball up in the air,” DiVincenzo said. “I didn’t know Mikal was anywhere near me, so with all the hands going up there, I was just trying to beat them to the ball. As soon as I saw it, I saw him.”
Brunson, who tied his career high for points, threw a scare into Nova Nation when he crashed to the floor on a layup attempt with 10:50 to go and got up limping badly. But after getting his left ankle looked at, he returned to action a little more than two minutes later.
“He told me after the game, ‘When it happened, it hurt really bad, I thought I was in trouble,’” Wright said. “It wasn’t that bad.”
Said Brunson: “It freaked me out a little bit, that’s all. It’s all good.”
Brunson, who took the ball into the paint time and again and finished at the rim, led a personal 10-0 run early in the second half that gave the Wildcats a nine-point lead. The visitors would hold that margin three more times until the Golden Eagles’ late run.
“Marquette’s a great team,” Brunson said. “They get their players ready to go. They play hard and they play together. It’s just always going to be a tough game with them.”