The Villanova Wildcats throttled the Butler Bulldogs 87-68 on Friday night to advance to the Big East Tournament Championship game for the fourth straight year.
To say Villanova came out “hot” would not be doing what amounted to a first half evisceration justice. Villanova opened up a 16-0 lead on Butler, holding the Bulldogs scoreless for over 5 minutes. When Aaron Thompson dropped in the first Butler bucket of the night at the 14:30 mark, the Villanova fans in attendance offered some sarcastic cheers. By the 9 minute mark, the Cats had a 28-10 lead, forcing the Fox Sports standards department to begin considering whether the game should be labeled mature content.
In what was essentially a home game for Villanova, the Wildcats cooled down slightly on the offensive end up but continued to take it to the Bulldogs on defense. The Wildcats forced 7 first half turnovers. Occasionally dropping into the three-quarter press, the Wildcats kept Butler off balance and forced them to primarily rely on the deep ball to stay in the game.
To Butler’s credit, they worked hard to stop the bleeding, but the lead was 19 for the Cats heading into the break. Omari Spellman was an active force on defense and brought down 7 rebounds in the first half to go along with his 7 points. Phil Booth closed the half with a shot-clock beating three to round out his 12 first half points.
By the 12:00 minute mark of the second half, Villanova’s lead ballooned to 25 points after two Mikal Bridges’ three balls, only to jump to 27 two minutes later on two more deep balls from Jalen Brunson. I’m running out of different cliches and phrases to summarize this performance so let’s just get to the finish line: Villanova’s walk-ons closed out the game and the ‘Cats left MSG tonight with a 87-68 win and a ticket punched for tomorrow night.
This game was another balanced effort from the Wildcats, with all 5 starters finishing with at least 12 points. Most impressively, Villanova held Butler to just 68 points, well below its season average of 81 points per game.
The Wildcats will face the Providence Friars tomorrow night in the Big East Tournament Championship Game. The Friars, who played their second straight overtime game, came back from a 17-point deficit to shock the Xavier Musketeers. The action will tip off tomorrow at 6:30pm on Fox.
COACH WRIGHT: That was one of our best defensive performances. We played well. They’re a really good offensive team.
And they still shot 48 percent and we thought we played really well defensively but the first half, the start defensively I think was the difference for us.
Q. Last night you said that you start off slowly from the outside so you went inside. Was it the opposite tonight because you hit so many shots early you really were able to bounce things out?
COACH WRIGHT: When Mikal hit that first shot, that’s not what we were looking for right there. But he does have the freedom.
And that just kind of set a great tone. Win the tap, throw it up, he hits a 3, that’s a nice way to start. I thought it gave everybody confidence.
Q. You had balanced scoring, all five of your starters go with more than ten points. How big is that with Providence coming up tomorrow?
COACH WRIGHT: It’s very important. That’s really the key to our team is the balance, when we have balance. Providence is always really tough on us defensively. They really grind. They play an incredible second half defensively tonight.
So it’s a different kind of defense. Butler has also played us tough also. But Providence has the length and athleticism that can really bother you and take away your 3-point shooting.
Q. That 19-0 run, have you ever seen anything like that recently or at all?
COACH WRIGHT: Yeah, Creighton did that to us, remember, at the Wells Fargo Center? Wasn’t it something like that?
Q. I thought you blocked that one out.
COACH WRIGHT: That’s what it reminded me of. I think it was something like that, right, 17 or something.
Q. Just the way you guys proceeded on offense, one possession after the other and building that lead and building confidence, I imagine?
COACH WRIGHT: Definitely. And it really came off our defense. Like the first play was the tap, but after that it was defensive stops, getting out in transition before the defense got set. It wasn’t -- they weren’t fast breaks, but they were kind of secondary offenses after the initial rush so they didn’t get set. They’re a really good half court defensive team. And that definitely gave us great defenses.
Q. Looking ahead to tomorrow’s game, will you look to speed the tempo up knowing they’re coming off of back-to-back overtime games?
COACH WRIGHT: No, we’ll be more concerned with what we do really. We wouldn’t change what we do for that reason. I think they’ve got veteran players. I think -- they’ve got decent depth. I think they’ll be fine that way.
We’re more concerned with how good Cartwright is, how well Lindsey shoots the ball, Bullock and how to defend them. And they do a great job defending on us. We have to be able to score on them.
Q. You had a bit of a rough stretch in February. The calendar changes and you have three big wins, including two in the Big East Tournament. What is it about the team’s mentality when the calendar changes, and how important is it to have four upperclassmen in the starting lineup for this time period?
COACH WRIGHT: I don’t think it’s the calendar. I think this year has been a unique year where we just had crazy injuries, and a couple of them were to some young guys that didn’t hurt us a lot. But it did affect how we played. And then when we lost Phil, that hurt us and we had to change how we played a little bit.
Now that we’ve got everybody back, we’re back kind of playing how we did before the injuries. So it’s just a weird year that way. But it’s kind of interesting now. I think we feel we’re a new team rather than a team that’s kind of stale at the end of the year.
Phil is kind of excited, (indiscernible) to be back, and Eric Paschall missed some games. The young freshmen are more seasoned. So it’s just a different kind of year for us.
Q. I was wondering if the players sensed that Butler’s players were getting frustrated as -- especially during that first half run and especially their stars Baldwin and Martin?
MIKAL BALDWIN: They did get upset. They’re mentally strong and that’s how their coach and that’s what the program is. And they stayed throughout and they kept battling throughout the whole game.
And we had some slip-ups and we got on each other. Coach got on us. And we had to keep playing our way and stop backing up.
Q. Mikal, yesterday you got off to a good start in terms of shooting and you continued it tonight. Could you speak to the rhythm you’re in in terms of how you’re playing with the offense and how you’re finding your shots?
MIKAL BRIDGES: Just my teammates finding me, moving without the ball, just being aggressive. My teammates, my first shot, JB found me in the beginning. So my teammates behind me and I’m just being aggressive.
Q. Mikal, so you started off the game strong, first five points really set the tone for the run of the game as a whole. Was that something you thought about in the pregame, shooting more free than usual or was it just sort of how the game came to you?
MIKAL BRIDGES: My coaches and teammates told me to be aggressive and having that aggressive mindset in the beginning helped me out, helped the team out.
Q. Coach, you mentioned a little bit about the defense yesterday. But Butler shot 48 percent. What do you think you need to do to get better before the next game?
COACH WRIGHT: I actually thought -- that’s the funny thing about -- our league is the number one offensive efficient, offensively efficient league in the country. This is a hard league to defend in. So even though they shot 48 percent I thought they played pretty well. I thought we eliminate their 3s, did a good job on Martin and Baldwin and even still they shot 48 percent. That’s just our league.
It might have been one of our best defensive efforts. So we’ve got to play that way tomorrow night.
Q. Phil, what was it like to be on the court for a 19-0 run at the start of the game? And as for your own offense, were you trying to be more aggressive tonight as well?
PHIL BOOTH: I didn’t even notice the score was 19-0. I saw them call timeout, I looked up and I noticed what it was. But we were just playing, trying to get stops and kept going and just played defense. But no, I wasn’t trying to be more aggressive, just playing the way we play, try to play the right way. Make the right plays on both ends of the floor was kind of what I was looking to do.