The Villanova Wildcats took a big step forward in their hunt for a 4th straight Big East regular season title by defeating the Xavier Muskeeters, 73-57, on Saturday afternoon at the Cintas Center in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. Donte DiVincenzo had another breakout game for the visitors with 17 points, and Wooden Award-candidate Josh Hart finished with 11 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
The Wildcats (11-2 Big East, 24-2 overall) got off to a slow start by settling for too many threes in their halfcourt offense, allowing Xavier (8-4, 18-7) to jump out to an early 7-3 lead. Villanova head coach Jay Wright called a quick timeout to right the ship and from that point on, the ‘Cats’ offense began to operate closer to its normal efficiency.
The turning point seemed to come when Xavier senior guard and leading scorer Trevon Bluiett aggravated a right ankle injury and had to miss several minutes while receiving treatment. Bluiett gave it a quick go shortly thereafter but would leave and not return in the second half.
Immediately after that initial injury, Donte DiVincenzo hit a three to give the ‘Cats their first lead of the game and Kris Jenkins hit back-to-back three-pointers to cap a 9-0 run and put the ‘Cats well out in front. When Bluiett returned he was clearly hobbled and Jalen Brunson took advantage by repeatedly isolating him for easy scores and assists.
Brunson (17 points, 7 assists) paced Villanova to a 35-23 halftime lead, with the lone sore spot being the absence of Darryl Reynolds, who is day-to-day with sore ribs. While the ‘Cats looked solid offensively playing small, RaShid Gaston killed them on the offensive glass with 5 of Xavier’s 9 offensive rebounds in the first half and it continued throughout the afternoon. The Musketeers finished with 22 offensive rebounds on the day.
The second half started with both teams trading shots at each end. Eric Paschall stepped up with a loud 6 points for Villanova before having to exit with 4 fouls, and Gaston continued to abuse the Wildcats inside as the Cintas Center crowd came to life.
Villanova was able to keep Xavier at arm’s length for most of the second half as Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson all took turns making big plays for ‘Nova. JP Macura started to heat up for the Musketeers as they brought the deficit to single digits heading down the stretch.
Villanova had struggled in recent weeks conceding big leads late in games, but a shorthanded Wildcats rotation sealed the deal impressively in Cincinnati. The season sweep of Xavier gives them a 2-game cushion atop the Big East standings.
Villanova has a quick turnaround on the road. They’ll take on DePaul on Monday night in Chicago. Tip-off is scheduled for 9pm ET and the game will be aired on CBS Sports Network.