Villanova rides hot second half to beat Marquette in Big East tournament

Mikal Bridges, left, of Villanova goes by Matt Heidt of Marquette during the 1st half in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 2018.

NEW YORK – Maybe it was because of being the team’s opening game of the Big East tournament, or maybe it was because  of the sellout crowd that jammed Madison Square Garden. People wanted answers as to why Villanova made an incredible percentage of shots Thursday night against Marquette.

Jay Wright smiled as he tried to explain it afterward.

“I’m glad we do shoot well in this building,” Wright said after the second-ranked Wildcats shot nearly 68 percent in the second half and cruised to a 94-70 victory over the Golden Eagles in a tournament quarterfinal game.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Omari Spellman of Villanova dunks as the team warms-up for their game against Marquette in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 2018.

“I love this building, but I don’t help the shots. But thank God they do, because when you play in this building, they’re always big games. So I think the guys do get excited about playing here. We did shoot it well tonight.”

Wright became the winningest coach in Villanova basketball history with 414, breaking a tie with Al Severance. The victory propelled the Wildcats (28-4), seeded second, to a semifinal matchup Friday night against No. 6 Butler, which beat No. 3 Seton Hall, 75-74.

Thursday night’s game started as though it would be a low-scoring, grind-it-out, down-to-the-last-minute thriller.

In the opening 9 minutes, 45 seconds, the Wildcats shot just 3 of 16 overall, 2 of 10 from three-point range, and scored 12 points. From that point, however, they made 30 of 42 attempts, or 71.4 percent, and 13 of 19 threes.

Mikal Bridges, who led all scorers with 25 points, said the early struggles didn’t affect Villanova in the least.

“We all have confidence in ourselves, and missing shots don’t really affect us,” he said. “We just keep shooting no matter what happens.”

The Wildcats hit 11 of their final 14 shots in the first half to take a 41-34 lead. Marquette (19-13), which pulled out a tough first-round win on Wednesday night, got to within three early in the second half. Then, all of a sudden, the Golden Eagles were watching Villanova run away from them.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Jalen Brunson, right, of Villanova goes by Matt Heidt of Marquette during the 2nd half in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 2018.

First, Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth accounted for all of the points in a 12-0 run that increased the lead to 15 with 13:49 to play. Then, the Wildcats rained down five straight three-pointers, two by Omari Spellman, and extended their lead to 78-57 with 8:10 remaining.

It also helped that the Cats played more solidly on defense in the second half against long-range Marquette shooters Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey, who shot a combined 5 of 13 in the second half after scoring 30 points between them in the first.

“I thought we gave them too much space in the first half, but our guys did a great job in the second half,” Wright said. “I thought they got a little worn down. Last night was a tough, physical game for them.”

Brunson added 21 points; Booth, 15; and Eric Paschall, 13, for the Wildcats, who shot 56.9 percent from the floor and 51.7 percent (15 of 29) from beyond the arc for the game.

When it was over, Wright downplayed breaking the record.

“The wins and everything don’t matter,” he said. “I know I’ll look back on it later. Makes me thank God for my wife [Patty], because I’m out of my mind. If not for her, I wouldn’t have made it this far.

“I’m really excited that we’re starting to get better defensively. That’s really what’s in front of my mind right now. I’m just most thankful to be the coach of Villanova. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the country.”

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Jalen Brunson of Villanova runs through a gauntlet of teammates during their pregame ritual before their game against Marquette in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 2018.

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