NEW YORK – Villanova exploded out of the gate Friday night with 19 consecutive points before its Big East tournament semifinal game against Butler was barely five minutes old, making seven of its first eight shots and wowing the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden with its offense.
But all Jay Wright wanted to talk about after the second-seeded Wildcats’ 87-68 victory that propelled them into Saturday’s conference championship game for the fourth consecutive year was defense, especially the part where his team held the Bulldogs without a point for the first 5:28.
“Our start defensively was the difference for us,” said Wright, whose team earned the right to play fifth seed Providence, a 75-72 overtime winner over No. 1 seed Xavier.
“It was defensive stops, getting out in transition before the defense got set,” he said. “They weren’t fast breaks but they were kind of secondary offenses are the initial rush so they didn’t get set. They’re a really good half-court defensive team. That definitely gave us great confidence.”
The tempo was set right away. Omari Spellman won the opening tap to Jalen Brunson, who fed Mikal Bridges for a three-pointer just five seconds into the game. Bridges scored seven points in the run, which ended with Spellman’s three-pointer. All in all, Villanova (29-4) made 10 of its first 12 shots.
“I didn’t even notice the score was 19-0,” said guard Phil Booth, who scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half. “I saw them call timeout, I looked up and I noticed what it was. But we were just playing, trying to get stops, playing defense.”
The Bulldogs (20-13) shot well after their 3-of-11 start, and actually posted a higher percentage – 48.1 percent to 47.5 percent – than the Wildcats. But they never got closer than 14 points after going down by 19 at the start, and ‘Nova outscored them by 21 points from the arc.
“That’s a heck of a basketball team that we just played,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. “A lot of credit goes to them for coming out with the level of intensity that they did.”
Kelen Martin, who was averaging 21 points per game coming in, was limited to 13 points for the Bulldogs.
Bridges led the Wildcats with 18 points and Brunson added 17, and the two combined for half of their team’s 14 three-pointers. Spellman contributed 12 points and 12 rebounds (seven offensive) and Eric Paschall chipped in with 12 points.
The Cats’ largest lead in the first half was 21, 26-5, and they were up 44-25 at the half. They missed their first three shots of the second half as Butler got to within 15, but then knocked down their next eight attempts, including a three-point basket by Brunson that gave them a 68-42 lead with 11:20 to play. Another Brunson trey a little over a minute later made it 71-44.
So with two tournament wins by a total margin of 43 points under their belts, the Wildcats turn their attention to Providence (21-12), which has won back-to-back overtime games over a pair of higher-seeded teams, Creighton and Xavier.
The Friars limited Villanova to 3-of-20 shooting from three-point range and hounded Brunson into a season-high seven turnovers in their 76-71 upset of the Wildcats on Feb. 14 in Providence. Wright said their length on defense is a problem.
“Providence is always really tough on us defensively,” he said. “They really grind. They played an incredible second half defensively tonight. It’s a different kind of defense. Providence has the length and athleticism that can really bother you and take away your three-point shooting.”