In their Big East semifinal matchup on Friday, the Villanova Wildcats played a complete game en route to a dominant 87-68 victory over Butler.
The Butler Bulldogs have given the Wildcats a lot of trouble in the past two seasons, winning three of the past four regular season matchups. However, this time would prove different.
Surprising the Bulldogs with their aggressiveness, Wright’s team came out of the gates blistering hot, knocking down shots at a dizzying pace to the tune of a 19-0 lead within the first five minutes.
Junior guard Phil Booth, who scored 14 points in the victory, emphasized that the Wildcats were just playing their game and avoided focusing too much on the scoreboard.
“I saw them call timeout, I looked up and I noticed what it was,” Booth said. “But we were just playing, trying to get stops and kept going and just played defense.”
This was spearheaded by junior forward Mikal Bridges’ seven points within that span.
“My coaches and teammates told me to be aggressive,” Bridges said. “Having that aggressive mindset in the beginning helped me out and helped the team out.”
Bridges continued to make an argument for Player of the Tournament with 18 points on the night, following a 25-point output in their previous matchup against Marquette.
Besides their accuracy shooting the ball, the Wildcats displayed great defensive effort, particularly early on when the team forced three Bulldogs’ turnovers in the opening five minutes.
“That was one of our best defensive performances,” Wright said. “The start defensively I think was the difference for us.”
Bridges and the Wildcats had to manage without the Big East Player of the Year for most of the first half when, with 8:00 remaining, junior guard Jalen Brunson committed his second foul with the score 28-10.
With Brunson out of the game, the Bulldogs began to eat away at the deficit, if only slightly. With 2:23 left in the half, the lead was 37-23, and neither of Brunson’s replacements, sophomore Dante DiVincenzo and freshman Collin Gillespie, had more than two points. Despite Brunson’s absence, the Wildcats went into the locker room at the half with a comfortable 44-25 lead.
Coming out of intermission, Butler showed signs of life, going on a 6-2 run behind buckets from senior forward Tyler Wideman and sophomore guards Kamar Baldwin and Henry Baddley.
The Wildcats, as they have done all year, counteracted the momentum shifting against them with a barrage from three-point range. Between the Bulldogs’ run and the 10:00 mark, Brunson and Bridges each sank three triples, squelching the Bulldogs’ surge and extending the lead to a game-high 27 points, 71-44. The Wildcats’ onslaught of threes (14 total) was fueled by a ferocious offensive rebounding performance (12 total), led by freshman forward Omari Spellman’s seven.
When asked about the importance of offensive rebounding to this Wildcats team, Spellman was initially surprised by the exact numbers, but stressed crashing the offensive glass as a vital part of the Wildcats’ offensive game.
“I pride myself on getting to the offensive glass,” he said. “It’s definitely part of our offense, we all have to hit the offensive glass.
In the last ten minutes of the game, Wright utilized a deeper rotation, giving minutes to freshmen forwards Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (2 PTS) and Jermaine Samuels (1 RBD, 1 STL), as well as reinserting Gillespie (7 PTS, 4 ASTS, 2 STLS). These substitutions allowed the Bulldogs to make the final score closer than the game was in reality, and the contest ended 87-68.
In the Big East championship game, the Wildcats will face off against an opponent not many thought would still be standing, the Providence Friars. The Friars defeated the top seeded Xavier Musketeers in overtime, 75-72, thundering back from a double-digit second half deficit to force overtime. The Friars are going into Saturday with confidence, and the Wildcats will have to be at their best to ensure a repeat of their regular season upset defeat does not occur. Game time is set for 6:30 p.m. at the world’s most famous arena.