[March 07, 2014]CINCINNATI — So much for preseason prognostications, even when it comes to
Villanova was picked to finish fourth in the first year of the
reconfigured Big East by the coaches, but the Wildcats claimed the
program's first conference regular-season title in eight years and
their first outright league title in 32 years by holding off a late
Xavier rally and beating the Musketeers 77-70 on Thursday night at
the Cintas Center in front of a capacity crowd of 10,340.
Junior guard Darrun Hilliard scored 19 points as No. 6 Villanova
improved to 27-3 overall and 15-2 in the Big East. The win adds to
Villanova's school record for regular-season victories.
The Wildcats led by 12 points, 69-57, with 1:35 remaining before
Xavier (20-11, 10-8) cut the lead to 73-70 with 21.1 seconds left.
Guard Josh Hart and forward James Bell each made two free throws to
seal the victory for Villanova.
Bell, a senior, finished with 12 points, pushing him past 1,000 for
his career. He now has scored 1,006 points for the Wildcats.
Bell had little thought about surpassing that individual mark,
however. He was more concerned with what the Wildcats completed and
what they still have in front of them.
"It's a big accomplish," Bell said. "It's a testament to how hard we
work and where we came from. It's definitely a big accomplishment,
but we can't stop here. We've got to keep getting better as a team
and take it as far as we can go."
Villanova last won the Big East regular-season title in 2006 when it
shared it with Syracuse. The only other time the Wildcats won the
Big East outright was in 1982. Villanova will have the top seed in
next week's Big East tournament regardless of the outcome of
Saturday's home finale against Georgetown.
Creighton, which has handed Villanova its two conference losses,
will be seeded second. The Big East tournament begins Wednesday at
Madison Square Garden in New York.
Villanova has proved it can play anywhere. Thursday's win improved
the Wildcats to 13-2 in road and neutral court games.
"Our play on the road has just been incredible," Villanova coach Jay
Wright said. "You're not going to win any championships if you can't
win on the road and I thought tonight was a great example. You're
playing an outstanding team in a tough environment.
"We have great respect for this league, and to win this league is
really a hell of an accomplishment."
Xavier got 20 points from forward Justin Martin and 18 points from
guard Semaj Christon, but it was not enough to keep the Musketeers
from dropping just their second game at home this season. Xavier
made just 6 of 24 3-point shots, including missing its first 11
attempts in the second half.
Xavier's regular season is complete. The Musketeers, who were picked
to finish seventh in the preseason conference poll, can finish
anywhere from third to fifth place in the Big East depending on
results of games on Saturday.
"We just have to wait and see now," Christon said. "It's a new
season now. We're starting from scratch. All of the things we've
done this season don't matter. You lose, you go home.
"So you've got to do what you've got to do to keep playing, to keep
whatever you've got alive. I think we'll be ready to bounce back and
do what we've got to do."
Xavier coach Chris Mack believes his team has done what it needs to
do to return to the NCAA tournament after missing the cut last year.
"We're going to finish the year with 20 wins, our strength of
schedule right now sits at (No.) 20 and history has shown that any
team with a top-20 schedule in the country that finishes with 20
wins is an NCAA tournament team. Period," Mack said.
Hilliard had a career-high 26 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the
field last Sunday against Marquette. He made 6-of-10 shots against
Xavier, including 5-of-8 in the first half. Forward JayVaughn
Pinkston added 15 points and six rebounds, and guard Ryan
Arcidiacono had 11 points. Hilliard, Arcidiacono and forward Kris
Jenkins each made three 3-pointers.
Eight Wildcats scored in the first half, led by Hilliard with 13
points, and Villanova led 41-36 at halftime. The Wildcats made half
of their 12 3-point shots in the half while shooting 14-of-25 (56
percent) from the field.
Xavier got 12 first-half points from Martin and kept things close by
making 11 of 12 free throws.
The game was tied five times and featured five lead changes in the
NOTES: Xavier played without junior C Matt Stainbrook, who suffered
a sprained medial collateral ligament during the Musketeers' 71-62
loss at Seton Hall on Monday. ... Villanova coach Jay Wright is a
cousin to new Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Paul
Guenther. ... Xavier freshman G Myles Davis ended a four-game
basket-less streak with a 3-pointer in the first half. Davis had
missed 12 consecutive shots from the field, including nine
3-pointers, before his shot with 6:48 left in the half gave Xavier a