After scoring only five points through the first eight minutes of play, the Villanova Wildcats quickly fell behind the visiting Butler Bulldogs.
The Wildcats had recently shaken off a three-game losing streak with a big win on Wednesday night against the No. 10 Marquette Golden Eagles. For a moment, it looked like ‘Nova was falling back into bad habits and the type of play it had shown during that losing stretch.
“That’s young teams—it happened to us in that three game stretch,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, about his team’s defensive discipline amid a cold-shooting spell. “We weren’t making shots, but it really affected our defense. That’s something that experienced, intelligent players understand can’t happen. Experienced teams understand that. I think we learned a good lesson, that’s what was so great about the Marquette game. We weren’t making shots, but it didn’t affect our defensive intensity. I was pleased that—in the first half—we didn’t make shots, we weren’t great, but we weren’t poor defensively.”
Eventually, Villanova settled into the game and spurred ahead of the Bulldogs, after trailing by as much as nine points midway through the first half. Once they caught up and snatched the lead from the Bulldogs in the closing minutes before halftime, the Wildcats hardly looked back.
After the break, they simply built on their lead, as a dominant second half effort allowed the ‘Cats to win 75-54—a sharp contrast from their play to begin the game.
“They’re a tough matchup,” Wright said. “They’re very intelligent as a team, they’re disciplined. That’s what you saw in the first half. They’re going to find your weakness. They’re going to find what you’re taking away and exploit it—and they did. In the second half, we did a much better job of disguising what we were trying to takeaway so they couldn’t pick it apart.”
Defensively, the Wildcats suffocated the Bulldogs in the second half, containing them to shoot just 10-of-34 overall (29.4 percent).
On the other end of the court, it certainly helped Villanova that it was able to get into a groove.
Villanova outscored Butler, 18-4, through the first seven minutes after halftime. The hot start to the second was topped off by a 12-0 run finished by an Eric Paschall dunk that made it 51-34, with 12:37 remaining in the game.
Once Villanova got the lead into double figures, it never sank down to single digits.
Although the ‘Cats had already celebrated their Senior Night on Wednesday, it was a big final home game performance by Villanova seniors Paschall and Phil Booth.
“I was really proud of their effort Wednesday night, not making shots but doing all the little things—defense, rebounding, making free throws, assists,” Wright said. “It was nice for them today to see the ball go through the basket in their last game here and have a good team effort—and not be the guys that have to do all the dirty work and not get any shots go through the basket.”
Booth picked up his play in a way that paralleled the tone of this game. He started off missing his first three shot attempts, before going on to make 10 of his next 12 takes. Booth caught fire in his Wells Fargo Center encore, finishing with a game-high 28 points. He also had five rebounds and a pair of steals in the win. Over half of his points came in the second half.
As for Paschall, he added 12 points, five boards, and five assists. He was a catalyst in the run that allowed Villanova to pull away, finishing at the basket with a couple of dunks that got the arena going.
“It’s special playing here,” said Booth, reflecting on his final game at the Wells Fargo Center. “A lot of good wins here, a lot of big games have been played here. It’s crazy that it’s my last time playing at Wells Fargo. It’s very special and will mean a lot to me when I’m done playing here.”
For Butler, Paul Jorgensen led the way with 11 points. Kamar Baldwin chipped in 10 points. As a team, the Bulldogs struggled in the second half offensively, going 10-of-34 overall (29.4 percent).
With the win, Villanova improves to 22-8 overall and 13-4 in Big East play. It will now prepare for one last game, the regular season finale next Saturday, Mar. 9, at the Prudential Center, where the Wildcats will take on the Seton Hall Pirates (16-11, 7-8 Big East). Tip-off is scheduled for 12 p.m.