In front of a majority pro-Wildcats crowd at Madison Square Garden Friday night, the Xavier contingent in attendance was loud. In the end, however, it was the Villanova faithful who left the arena happy, as their Wildcats battled from behind to advance to the Big East Tournament final with 71-67 victory over Xavier.
The Musketeers led for the large majority of the game. They held the lead unabridged all the way from the 8:23 mark of the first half until the dying seconds of the game. But the Wildcats’ experience paid off in the end against the talented young Musketeers, and after scratching and clawing their way to free basketball, they won assuredly in the overtime period.
“We didn’t even have the lead the second half, I didn’t even know that,” Wildcats senior guard Phil Booth said. “Just trying to tell the team, keep getting stops. Focus on the next possession, that’s all you can do.”
The Musketeers struck first, a minute and a half into Friday evening’s semifinal as Paul Scruggs finished a floater over Wildcats sophomore guard Collin Gillespie, drawing a block in the process. He missed the ensuing free throw. The Wildcats quickly drew even on their next trip down the floor through a layup from freshman forward Saddiq Bey(10 PTS, 7 RBDS, 1 BLK, 1 STL) as the scoring pace quickly increased. The two teams spent much of the first half exchanging hold of the lead, and the atmosphere quickly became heated as hard fouls and words were exchanged with an even higher frequency. Because of this, it was a low scoring half, and with Musketeers star sophomore forward Naji Marshall(1-12 FG, 6 RBDS, 4 ASTS, 2 STLS) still feeling the effects of a recent ankle injury, it was defined by the battle between the Musketeers’ sophomore guard Paul Scruggs(11 RBDS, 7 ASTS, 2 STLS) and Booth(7 RBDS, 5 ASTS), who finished the half with 15 and 13 points, respectively.
With just over half of the first half played, the Musketeers established a slightly more sizable lead as Marshall’s first and only bucket of the day was followed by a Scruggs triple. Booth, of course, hit back with a three of his own. For a time, the most the Wildcats could do was keep the deficit under double-digits. Scruggs defined his first half performance as he stretched his side’s lead to what at that point was its largest at nine points by somehow banking a corner three of the backboard and in. The lead did eventually reach 10 late in the half when senior forward Zach Hankins(18 PTS, 6 RBDS, 3 BLKS) finished an alley-oop off a feed from junior guard Quentin Goodin(2-11 FG, 8 ASTS).
“[Hankins is] so long,” Wildcats head coach Jay Wright said. “They do a great job throwing it up over the top to him.”
This seemed to wake the Wildcats up, however, as sophomore forward Jermaine Samuels(17 PTS, 9 RBDS, 4 ASTS) converted a three-point play after a scooped reverse layup and Booth flushed home a dunk off a nice feed from senior guard Joe Cremo as Villanova finished the half with a 5-1 run and went into the locker room only six points down, 34-28.
The Wildcats struck first in the second half, briefly cutting the deficit to 3 points on a corner three from Booth, but then the back and forth began once again. And as it was destined, this back and forth eventually again became Scruggs and Booth taking turns pushing their team’s offense forward. Until the 12:37 mark in the second half, Scruggs did not miss a single field goal attempt, making his first 8. Both he and Booth finished with 28 points for the game.
With just under five minutes to play, the Musketeers began to pull ahead, extending the lead to 7 points on a turnaround Goodin jumper at the 4:41 mark. Despite the Wildcats’ history of pulling out miracles in the Big East Tournament, the situation looked dire, and potentially unsalvageable. But, after a timeout and a forced shot clock violation on the Musketeers, the Wildcats started to show signs of life. Samuels hit a three – just his third make on eleven attempts, and Booth got to the line to cut the lead to two points before another tough stop on the defensive end. After Hankins stretched the Xavier lead to 4 with a layup, Samuels then made another three – and a crazy one at that – as it hit off the front of the rim and the backboard before falling through.
“Jermaine’s got a great attitude,” Wright said about Samuels bouncing back from his cold shooting. “He really doesn’t need encouragement.”
Hankins on the Musketeers’ next trip down the floor was then fouled on his shot, but made one of two from the line, which made it a two-point game, 58-56. Then, with 00:07 remaining, senior forward Eric Paschall, who before this had only scored 5 points, tipped in a miss by Booth to tie the game.
“I was on the weak side, most shots go off on the weak side,” Paschall explained. “I was thinking aggressive rebounding and the ball was there. I just tipped it in, and that was it.”
Xavier had one more chance to win the game, but Gillespie drew a controversial charge on Naji Marshall under the basket.
In overtime, the Wildcats seniors took over while Scruggs looked like he had simply run out of gas, answers, or both. Hankins did his best to keep the Musketeers in the game with four points in the extra period, but it was not enough. Booth and Paschall contributed 10 of the Wildcats 13 points in the overtime period, and Samuels hit another huge three to help close out the win for the ‘Cats.