In its Big East home opener, Villanova found steadiness within the wave of instability characterizing its previous two games.
The #23 Wildcats defeated #18 Xavier 71-58 in a tight contest featuring a comeback from the home team. Junior guard Justin Moore led the way with 17 points including three 3-pointers. Graduate guard Collin Gillespie and redshirt sophomore forward Eric Dixon each added 15, while redshirt senior guard Caleb Daniels provided a needed 16 points off the bench. Sophomore Dwon Odom topped all Xavier scorers with 13 points on 6/8 (75%) shooting.
The Wildcats entered the game coming off back-to-back 20-point losses for the first time under head coach Jay Wright. In the two losses, Villanova struggled on either side of the floor; Baylor shut down the ‘Cats offense while Creighton consistently blew by the defense. Villanova’s competency from behind the arc wobbled as well, with the team making only 20 of their 100 attempts in the three games before Xavier.
Returning home for the first time in almost three weeks, Villanova could also bring confidence back to the Finneran Pavilion. The Wildcats have historically dominated the Musketeers, winning eight of the previous nine matchups. Xavier’s weak early schedule and Villanova’s strong home record inspired optimism despite the ‘Cats recent results.
The opening half took on a much different character from the second half. From the outset, it appeared as if Villanova had failed to stem the bleeding from beyond the three-point line. The ‘Cats 1/10 shooting from long range threatened to sink Wright’s squad early if not for repeated paint touches. Dixon proved a key piece in Villanova’s first-half offense, providing a consistent boost in the post and getting to the free-throw line twice.
While offensive inefficiency plagued the home team, Xavier struck early and often from three. The Musketeers hit each of their first six threes, finishing the half a blistering 6/9 (66.7%) from deep. A strong post presence from forwards allowed Xavier to suck in the defense with lane entries before kicking out to open shooters. The Musketeers also benefitted from 14 points from their bench, compared to only four for the Wildcats.
With the ‘Cats down eight at the half, cautious optimism remained in the locker room. The poor shooting was less a result of bad opportunities as much as a cold streak. Xavier's cooling-off seemed an inevitability, so consistent defensive effort combined with better performance on offense emerged as the focus for the second half.
Villanova set the tone early with two steals on Xavier’s first two possessions out of halftime. Forcing five turnovers in the first four minutes of the second half, Villanova also hit three of their first six threes to begin the half. Within six minutes, a Wildcat bucket off a turnover erased the Musketeers’ lead. Daniels and Moore fueled a renewed Villanova efficiency; in the second half, the Wildcats sank five of 11 (45.5%) three-pointers, a rate above that of the top shooting teams in the country.
Xavier continued to stick around in the game, always clawing back any deficit before Villanova could take control. As the game reached its finish, the Wildcats began to capitalize upon every Musketeer mistake and expanded the lead to double digits. Villanova outscored Xavier by 21 points in the second half, and Wright praised his players for the turnaround.
“We’re getting good looks, not making our shots, that can’t affect our mindset on the defensive end,” Wright said of the first half. “That’s easy to say as a coach; the players have to do it and have that mental toughness. These guys had great mental toughness in the second half.”
Despite an inspiring second half, this performance fails to eliminate all worries around the Wildcats. Villanova still finished the game a poor 6/21 (28.6%) from three, a tally well below their season average. Wright and his team adjusted to the poor shooting by exploiting the paint, but that level of shooting is unsustainable should this team want to hang with the contenders. In the end, Villanova found enough in the tank to hold off Xavier and their challenge to usurp the Big East throne.
Villanova rises to 8-4 while Xavier picks up only their second loss of the season, moving to 11-2. The Wildcats return to action against Temple in their final Big Five matchup of the season on Wednesday, Dec. 29 at 9 p.m in the Finneran Pavilion.