CINCINNATI – The Big East’s big showdown of the season matched wobbly Villanova against a Xavier team determined to put a major dent in the Wildcats’ drive to win a fifth consecutive regular-season championship in the conference.
The third-ranked Wildcats, however, played as if they had something to prove Saturday to a roaring sellout crowd at Cintas Center. The attention to detail that coach Jay Wright found lacking in losses to St. John’s and Providence over the last 11 days had been addressed. The Cats were crisp on offense and solid on defense.
Helped by 60.6 percent overall shooting, 16 three-point baskets, and key stops that thwarted a second-half rally by No. 4 Xavier, Villanova rolled to a 95-79 victory, drawing to within a half-game of the Musketeers’ Big East lead and giving the team the valuable tiebreaker edge by sweeping the season series.
The Wildcats (24-3, 11-3) broke the nine-game winning streak of Xavier (24-4, 12-3) and extended their nearly five-year run to 173 games – best in the nation – without suffering back-to-back defeats.
But proving something, maintaining a streak, getting closer to another conference title, none of that meant anything to Wright.
“We don’t try to come in to prove something,” he said. “We really don’t look at it that way. We know that whatever happens here, the next few games could change things. So we look at it like, what did we do at Providence, where do we have to improve? None of that stuff ever enters our conversation at all, honestly.
“We do that purposely. Like when we’re No. 1 and then we lose No. 1, we never talk about it. We talk about the things we feel like we can control, which is how we defend and how we rebound. We really try to discipline ourselves on that.”
Donte DiVincenzo, who contributed 21 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists, said the only team that the Wildcats wanted to send a message to was the one wearing the road blue uniforms.
“I think we wanted to send ourselves a message, not necessarily about the title race or anything like that, but about playing Villanova basketball,” he said. “We wanted to come in here and get back to our culture of basketball.”
The Cats dished out a Big East season-high 25 assists against six turnovers. DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson (eight), and Eric Paschall (six) combined for 23 dimes against only one turnover. DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges, who had 25 points, knocked down nine threes between them in 14 attempts.
After shooting 23.9 percent from three-point range in their previous three games, the Cats hit at a 47.1 percent clip Saturday.
With Bridges scoring 16 first-half points, the Wildcats led by as many as 19 before settling for a 51-37 advantage at the break. But they missed their first seven three-point tries of the second half and Xavier mounted a run, climbing back to within three at 64-61 with just over 11 minutes remaining.
But Bridges capped a 7-0 run that made it a 10-point game and, after the Musketeers closed the deficit to six, freshman Collin Gillespie knocked down a three-point basket and sank a tough driving layup. DiVincenzo later scored eight straight points and the margin was restored to 15 with two minutes left.
Booth could be back soon
Wright said fourth-year junior guard Phil Booth, who has missed the last seven games, had the cast removed from his broken right hand Friday and could return to the lineup as soon as Wednesday against DePaul at the Wells Fargo Center.
“It’s not a guarantee,” Wright said. “We’re going to work to try to get him back. But if we get him back Wednesday, he’ll be really limited. We’re going to be careful with him.”