Despite forcing its fans to the edge of their seats down the home stretch, Villanova snuck out of Cincinnati with a 64-60 win over #17 Xavier.
By no means a shootout, the Wildcat victory championed defense and free throws over high-flying offenses. Graduate guard Collin Gillespie led all scorers with 21 points on 5/5 from the free-throw line. Junior guard Justin Moore chipped in with 19 points and nine rebounds, and redshirt sophomore forward Eric Dixon added a double-double on 15 points and 10 rebounds, including seven offensive boards. Paul Scruggs and Nate Johnson helped narrow the deficit with 15 points apiece for the Musketeers.
In December, Villanova rediscovered its footing in a win over Xavier following two straight 20-point losses. The Musketeers responded with a dominant offensive performance in Big East play, benefitting from extended rest as well in preparation for their rematch with the Wildcats. Villanova head coach Jay Wright appeared to have righted the ship following the loss at Creighton, reeling off four straight Big East wins with ease. Avenging the Creighton loss with a 34-point reversal announced the return of Villanova to the national stage.
In the second matchup, Xavier stifled the momentum of the Wildcats during the first ten minutes of the game. Gillespie needed six minutes before connecting on a shot, and neither team hit double digits until the eighth minute of the game. Two offensively potent teams struggled to impose themselves, but Gillespie’s penetration to the paint provided the team’s first consistent offense. The lead continued to grow, bolstered by a strong performance on the offensive glass. Poor shooting from the Musketeers made way for an 11-point lead for the ‘Cats going into halftime.
With Xavier at arm’s length, Villanova had their fifth straight win in Big East Play within grasp. The solid guard performance, competent defense, and smart decision-making of the first half Wildcats would have made any historic Villanova team proud, yet Xavier refused to go away, and the arm’s length slowly shortened to touching distance.
For the first 12 minutes of the second half, Villanova defended any comeback attempts with ruthless efficiency. The Wildcats maintained a margin of at least seven until back-to-back Xavier buckets cut the lead to just two. Some big shots from the Musketeers and careless mistakes from Villanova produced a narrow ending diverging from the earlier narrative. Scruggs hit a three-pointer to even the two teams, but some clutch free-throw shooting from Moore iced the game.
Both teams shot poorly in the second half, with less than 40% of each team’s shots finding the bottom of the net. Villanova turned the ball over an uncharacteristic nine times during the final half, and Xavier capitalized with nine more shot attempts than the Wildcats. Wright’s squad had just enough to close out the game and secure their third victory over a ranked opponent in the past five games.
With their win, the Wildcats move to 12-4 and 5-1 in the Big East. Villanova returns home on the back of two straight road wins, facing off with Butler on Sunday, Jan. 16 at noon at the Wells Fargo Center.