Despite spotting DePaul a 14-point lead midway through the first half, the Wildcats were able to buckle down and take care of business coming down the stretch.
The Blue Demons didn’t go down without a fight either, but the ‘Cats were able to fend them off for a 73-68 victory at home, starting off 2019 and conference play with a win.
“We just kept grinding,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “That’s what this Big East is going to be like this year. There’s not going to be an easy game anywhere, anytime. We’re going to have to grind out everything and earn everything that we get.”
With 7:58 to go in the game, Phil Booth drained a three-pointer to give Villanova a 58-56 lead, the team’s first of the showdown. From there, Villanova was able to make the necessary plays to cling onto that lead, despite not making a single shot in the final 3:56 of play.
Eric Paschall led the way with a game-high 24 points and six rebounds. Booth and Saddiq Bey chipped in 15 points apiece.
“Eric started getting hot and hitting shots,” Wright said. “We don’t want to rely on that, we want to be able to get shots with our defense, but we couldn’t. They shot 53 percent of the game, we really had trouble stopping them. Little things like getting to Strus, Cain getting downhill—little things we didn’t take care of.”
For DePaul, Eli Cain and Max Strus paced the Blue Demons with 16 points each. Femi Olujobi had 12 points, while Devin Gage finished with 10.
DePaul raced out to the lead behind a hot shooting start by Cain. The Blue Demon senior led an early charge that saw DePaul take a 30-16 lead in less than 10 minutes into the game.
‘Nova would respond to with a 16-4 run over the next 7:02 to get back into the game. Joe Cremo drained a three to spark the run, while Jahvon Quinerly finished it with a layup to make it 34-32 with 2:55 remaining in the first half.
The Wildcats were able to trim the lead down to single digits, but trailed 38-34 going into halftime.
Unfortunately Villanova’s momentum didn’t exactly carry over to begin the second half, as it gave up a 7-0 run to DePaul, allowing the Blue Demons to stretch the lead back into double figures for a brief moment.
Villanova had a small scoring spurt to cut it back down to single digits, but it seemed like whenever it would inch closer to DePaul, the Blue Demons would answer back with a basket of their own to keep the ‘Cats at bay.
Finally, ‘Nova got it going on both ends of the court midway through the second half.
“They did a great job defensively, showing different looks,” Booth said of DePaul. “They’re a very athletic team, a lot of length. They showed a lot of looks, but shots started falling later in the second half.”
After Strus nailed a pair of free throws to make it an 8-point game with 11:04 remaining, the Wildcats went on a game-changing 13-3 run that was sparked by a Bey and-one. Both teams would trade threes, with Paschall and Strus each making one, before ‘Nova strung together some baskets and free throws that included Booth’s trey for the lead and another Bey layup that ended the run. By the end of the three-minute scoring spree, the Wildcats had a 60-56 lead.
DePaul battled, but ultimately fell short. There were a number of instances that it made it a one-basket game, and it even had a chance to tie and force overtime. However, Strus missed a three in the closing seconds of the game, and Booth was fouled trying to corral the loose rebound. He would ice the game with a pair of free throws.
“We’ve got a resilient group,” Booth said. “We’ve been down a lot this year—together as a group. We’ve found ways to come back just staying doing what we do. Sometimes we lose, and sometimes we come back and win. We have guys that resilient and mentally tough.”
With the win, Villanova improves to 10-4 overall. It will now prepare to head to the Dunk for a Saturday showdown with the Providence Friars (10-4, 0-1 Big East). Tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET.