The Villanova Wildcats kicked off postseason play Thursday night taking down the Marquette Golden Eagles 94-70 at Madison Square Garden. Set on defending their Big East Tournament crown, the ‘Cats got off to a precarious start, going 3-13 from deep to start the game. Fortunately, Marquette, content to toss up three-ball after three-ball, could not capitalize on the icy Wildcats, only hitting 3 of their first 14.
Things were tight for the majority of the first half, with Villanova surviving a barrage from Andrew Rowsey and Marcus Howard, who together finished with 30 of Marquette’s 34 first half points. While Marquette hovered around 50% from three, baiting Villanova to extend the defense, the Cats, somewhat uncharacteristically, were set on driving the ball inside and drawing fouls, resisting the temptation to match Marquette in a shootout.
Mikal Bridges led the way for Villanova in the first half, dropping in 16 points, while Jalen Brunson chipped in 9 of his own. Villanova went into the half with a 41-34 lead, having hit 9-10 free throws in the half.
Out of the break, the game continued to stay close with Golden Eagles-who-will-remain-nameless going shot for shot with the Wildcats. However, the Wildcats extended their lead to 50-43 on an Omari Spellman steal, which lead to run-out and an easy lay-up for Brunson. The Garden, known as Pavilion East around my apartment, erupted as the series forced a timeout from Marquette.
Defense soon led to more offense for the ‘Cats when a Mikal Bridges block led to Jalen Brunson three-ball on the other end. A Phil Booth booth-ball (three pointer shot by Phil Booth) extended ‘Nova’s lead to 58-43, forcing another Marquette timeout.
At just below the 9-minute mark in the second half, Villanova hit a fourth straight three to stretch the lead to 20 and the game soon got out of hand. Marquette would never get within 18 for the rest of the ballgame.
Overall, Villanova opened the Big East Tournament with an impressive performance. The defense looked sharp, with the players communicating and switching better than we’ve seen the past few weeks. If this is a sign of things to come, Wildcat fans should feel optimistic that the defense is trending in the right direction.
On offense, the ‘Cats looked more like the team we had become accustomed to seeing earlier this season. Instead of relying on the three balls (which, to be fair, were actually falling), the Wildcats pounded the paint and drove to the basket against the smaller Marquette. Everyone was involved, with 4 players finishing with 15 or more points.
The Wildcats will face the winner of tonight’s Seton Hall/Butler game tomorrow night at 9:00pm.
Postgame Press Conference
Q. Jay, you shot well when you played Gonzaga in the Garden. Tonight shot really well from 3 again. What is it about the building?
COACH WRIGHT: I’m glad we do shoot it well in this building. I love this building, but I don’t help the shots. But thank God they do, because when you play in this building they’re always big games. So I think the guys do get excited about playing here and we did shoot it well tonight. Thank God for that.
Q. Markus Howard had 16 in the first half and only seven in the second half. Did you have any kind of game plan to slow him down or was it just good effort by the guys?
COACH WRIGHT: I think it was a combination, good effort. I thought we just gave them too much space in the first half. I thought our guys just did a great job in the second half. I thought they might have got a little worn down. Last night was a tough, physical game for them, and I just thought they got a little worn down. We were able to stay fresh as -- the latter part of the second half, especially him and Rowsey.
Q. Mikal, you have a philosophy of shoot them up, sleep in the streets. What does that phrase mean to you guys?
MIKAL BRIDGES: It means if you keep missing, if you’re open keep shooting the ball. We all have confidence in ourselves and missing shots don’t really affect us. So that’s what we mean -- just keep shooting no matter what happens.
Q. You did shoot it well overall but not very well at the beginning as you suggested. You had a timeout in there where you came back out and seemed like you were determined to get to the inside, maybe get some fouls, reestablish some fundamentals, is that what happened in that timeout?
COACH WRIGHT: Yeah, exactly. As I said, they played here last night. Rowsey got hot last night. They looked really comfortable. They looked loose, comfortable and they were making shots and we didn’t. We didn’t look loose, we didn’t look comfortable.
We just said, let’s get some movement and try to get to the rim and get some easy baskets. I thought Mikal did a great job of that early. Eric Paschall did, too.
Q. How important is it for you guys to get points in offensive transition especially after getting a quick turnover or working a team down in the shot clock?
COACH WRIGHT: Defenses are getting so good, especially in this league, that when you get in their half court sets it’s hard. It’s hard to score. These coaches and I think in our league are as prepared as anybody in this country. So when you get a stop and the defense isn’t set, it’s really your best opportunity to score.
Q. Jalen, you guys have thoughts of really big things. But you always, you guys always pour everything you can into this tournament, the Big East Tournament. What does this mean to you?
JALEN BRUNSON: I think every game here means a lot to us. Every game we play like it’s our last. We try not to take things for granted. We just focus on one game at a time. So every game we play is a big game for us no matter who we’re playing, no matter what the opponent’s record is or anything like that. We just go out there play it like it’s our last.
Q. (Indiscernible) special about this year, this tournament. What’s special about this tournament?
JALEN BRUNSON: There’s great tradition, great history in this arena. This tournament has a lot of great memories. I mean, it’s always a battle whenever you’re in a game here. So it’s really special to play here.
Q. Same question you were asked after the last game, but you’re alone on the career wins list with 414. Bigger things ahead, I know, but what does that mean to you? And did you hear from Al’s grandson after Saturday?
COACH WRIGHT: I think I talked with Mark with Al’s grandson, Mark Jackson. And I’m mostly proud to be the coach of Villanova, honestly. The wins and everything don’t matter. I know I’ll look back on it later.
Makes me thank God for my wife because I’m out of my mind. If not for her, I wouldn’t have made it this far. My wife Patty is here. Thank God for her. And then we’ll think about all that later.
I’m really excited that we’re starting to get better defensively. That’s really what’s in front of my mind right now. I really am. I’m just most thankful to be the coach of Villanova. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the country.
Q. In the first ten minutes of the game all the scoring came from Brunson and Bridges, and then after that you were able to get secondary guys going. Do you attribute that more to Marquette wearing down, getting fatigued or was there something specific you adjusted to start getting your other guys going?
COACH WRIGHT: Jalen and Mikal are our leaders. They know, to start the game, they’ve got to get us going. And then after that with those two, their experience allows them to just read how the defense is playing them.
So they stay aggressive. Then they start finding their teammates and the team adjusts and starts taking them away and then they find their teammates. I think that’s what happened in the first half of this game.
Q. You always say you always learn from your previous experiences. What can you take away from your games against Butler and Seton Hall this year?
COACH WRIGHT: Both of them beat us obviously. Both of them are very, very physical. I think we learned from both of those games, we have to be a little tougher.
And this game right here, this is going to be a battle. This is going to be a physical battle because I think both of them are two of the most physical teams in our league.
Q. Chris Mack said earlier today it’s just a strong statement for the league that you’re even being considered for two No. 1 seeds in the NCAA. And he said he didn’t know how that’s going to work out. I know you don’t know that yet. But could you just share your thoughts on that, is there a big statement being made here by the league this year and this weekend?
COACH WRIGHT: I think so. I’ve said this a million times. You’re sick of me saying this, but I’m an old school Big East guy. I grew up with it; I love it. And I was crushed when it broke up.
I don’t think I could’ve ever envisioned it was this big. If we all remember -- it’s never going to be the same. That was just a special time. But if you think about it, what we all used to get so excited about was Georgetown would be playing St. John’s in here. They’d be 1, 2 -- 2, 3. Syracuse would be in here, 2, 3.
Well, we’re doing the same thing now in the Big East. You’ve got Seton Hall is in the Top 25. Butler is in the Top 25. Villanova and Xavier are playing 2-3. Even earlier in the year we played some 1-4 games. That’s what we used to all love about the old Big East.
I think what’s unique about the league now is Butler could be in that position. Seton Hall could be in that position. Creighton can be in that position, has been. All these teams could be the Xavier/Villanovas. And it wasn’t that way in the old Big East. We have to admit that. This is pretty cool. I’m excited where this league is right now.
Postgame Notes from the Big East Conference
- Tonight’s sellout of 19,812 is the first Quarterfinal sellout since the 2013-14 realignment.
- #2 seed Villanova joins top-seeded Xavier in the BIG EAST Tournament Semifinals on Friday night. The Wildcats advance to the Semifinal Round for the 20th time.
- Villanova will play either #6 Butler or third-seeded Seton Hall in Friday’s second semifinal at 9 p.m.
- Jay Wright improves to 18-8 all-time against Marquette.
- Villanova climbs to 3-1 all-time against Marquette in the BIG EAST Tournament.
- The Wildcats have won nine out of their last 10 BIG EAST Tournament games, with the lone loss in that stretch taking place in the 2016 title game versus Seton Hall.
- The victory marks VU’s 14th this season by at least 20 points, while it improves to 21-0 in games decided by 11 points or more. The Wildcats Winning its 14th game on the season, outscoring the opposition by 20+ points, Villanova improves to 21-0 in games decided by 11 points or more.
- Villanova moves to 14-1 on the year in which it scores at least 90 points and 25-1 in games in which it led at the half.
- Mikal Bridges (25 points) and Jalen Brunson (22) set personal BIG EAST Tournament highs in points.
- For the 14th time this season Bridges led Nova in scoring, surpassing 20 points for the 13th time this year and fifth time in the last six games.
- Redshirt-freshman forward Omari Spellman recorded a career-high three steals on the night, surpassing his previous high of two against Gonzaga (Dec. 15).
- MU falls to 19-13 overall and 2-11 all-time in the BIG EAST Tournament Quarterfinals. The Golden Eagles last advanced to the Semifinals in 2010.
- Markus Howard (23 points) and Andrew Rowsey (22) accounted for 55 of MU’s 70 total points (78.6%).
- Rowsey became the 49th player in Marquette history to reach 1,000 career points and the fifth in NCAA history to score 1,000 for two different programs. He netted 1,244 points in two years at UNC Asheville before transferring to Marquette.
- Rowsey will finish his career averaging 23.3 points in three career BIG EAST Tournament games on 46% (23-of-50) from the floor and 44.8% (13-of-29) from beyond the 3-point line.
- The Golden Eagles sank 11 3-pointers in the game to extend the single-season program record set last night against DePaul. MU has drained 354 treys on the season.
- Howard reached the 20-point plateau for the 15th time this season and sank at least five 3-pointers for the sixth time in 2017-18.