NEW YORK — Eric Paschall looked at the Providence defense Thursday and decided he wanted to take the ball to the basket, which can be a scary thought for a defender trying to get in the way of Villanova’s 6-foot-8, 255-pound senior forward.
Paschall attacked the hoop at will for most of his 20 points, eight of which came in the final seven minutes, and added 10 rebounds as the Wildcats began their quest for a record third straight Big East Tournament championship with a 73-62 victory over the Friars at Madison Square Garden.
Villanova (23-9), the top seed, advanced to Friday night’s matchup against Xavier — a 63-61 winner over Creighton — reaching the semifinals for the fifth straight year.
Paschall dared the physical Providence defense to try and stop him. He was aggressive enough to draw seven fouls and made 7-of-10 free throws. Known equally for his ability to hit the three-pointer, he drained only one basket from deep, but it helped fuel a 17-5 second-half run that gave the Wildcats the lead for good over the Friars (18-14).
“Honestly, it’s just my teammates finding me in the right spots,” said Paschall, who scored 16 points in the second half. “It wasn’t anything that they were doing specifically. It was just that my teammates found me and I tried to be aggressive and make the right plays, passing to my teammates, trying to just do everything.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright said the Friars defense tried to take away Paschall’s three-point shooting, which left openings for the drives.
“Providence did a good job, and Seton Hall did the same thing, of being concerned about taking away threes,” Wright said. “When he plays Providence, he actually gets a clear path. There might be one guy helping but he gets a clear path and he recognizes that.
“He doesn’t get that in many games, so that was really important for him to recognize that [Thursday]. He’s got to be careful because as soon as he puts the ball on the floor, they come at him to get it out of his hands. If you leave him 1-on-1, he’s really good at it.”
Collin Gillespie knocked down five three-point baskets and scored 19 points for the Wildcats while dishing out six assists.
Villanova didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, connecting on only 36.7 percent, and hit 10-of-31 from three-point range. But they scored 24 points off 19 Providence turnovers, and their 12 offensive rebounds led to 21 second-chance points.
“We started to get out defensively and get some easy buckets,” senior guard Phil Booth said. “We got in transition and things got easier for us. That was big, just being on the attack mode and getting stops and getting out in transition.”
Trailing by eight twice early in the second half, Providence tied it at 44 on a conventional three-point play by Alpha Diallo with 9 minutes, 18 seconds remaining. But two threes by Gillespie and one from Paschall sparked the 17-5 run that gave the Cats a 61-49 lead with 4:36 to play.
The Friars got as close as five on two free throws by Isaiah Jackson with 3:17 remaining, but Jermaine Samuels sank two free throws and a three-pointer to put the game away for ‘Nova.
The Wildcats also got a lift from freshman Cole Swider, who except for one minute of mop-up time against Butler hadn’t played in a game since Jan. 13 because of a broken right hand. He contributed five points, an offensive rebound, two assists and a steal in 14 ½ minutes.
“We couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Wright said. “He was awesome.”