Wednesday’s win was extra special for Villanova head coach Jay Wright.
Wright picked up his 600th career win in Villanova’s home opener in an eerily empty Finneran Pavilion. The only in-person fan to watch Villanova top Butler 85-66 tonight was Villanova President Fr. Peter Donohue, who rushed to the arena after learning from the TV broadcast that Wednesday could be Wright’s 600th win.
“I just am lucky to be a coach at Villanova,” Wright said. “It’s great. I have a great job.”
In a game that looked tight for most of the game, the ‘Cats showed they know how to pull ahead under pressure.
It was difficult to know what to expect from this Butler team, as it had only played one game before facing the ‘Cats. Villanova was clearly the more experienced team, coming in with six games under its belt, and much more practices.
In fact, Butler only had its first practice since its three-week COVID hiatus this past Sunday. However, the Bulldogs came out and matched Villanova’s energy early in the game, despite missing six players, and kept it close.
“With Bryan Antoine out and Dhamir Cosby- Roundtree out, our practices aren’t as competitive as I’d like,” Wright said. “I think maybe we were not prepared for the quickness, and we settle in, but there are some other things we’ve got to work on too.”
Butler came into the game sharp, making nearly every shot behind a great start by graduate transfer Jair Bolden.
Later in the game, however, Butler began to struggle from the field and got sloppy with its shots. The ‘Cats buckled down and capitalized on this and used that time to pull ahead.
The beginning of the second half proved to be close, too. While Villanova held the lead, Butler was always close behind. However, Villanova began to pull ahead in a double-digit lead and buried the Bulldogs, who didn’t hit a single shot over the last four minutes.
Collin Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 18 points apiece to lead the ‘Cats.
Villanova also saw big days from Justin Moore who helped out with 13 points, and Jeremiane Samuels who chipped in 12 points and six rebounds.
For Butler, Bolden made it a game with 18 points. Aaron Thompson was also a big contributor but went down with a knee injury late in the second half. The sophomore guard put up 14 points and five assists.
“They can’t be in game shape,” Wright said. “They might have practiced three or four days. I feel for them.”
Other than the big performances tonight, Villanova saw a lot of help from its bench.
“I thought Brandon Slater, Cole Swider, and even Eric Dixon came off the bench and gave us a real defensive spark which is great, Wright said. “I think their size was a factor defensively and they rebounded really well.”
Villanova needs a big guy, and Eric Dixon seems up for the job. Tonight saw more minutes from him than usual. Compared to its opponents, Villanova is on the smaller side, so a player like Dixon is essential. Specifically, ‘Nova needs a big player who can play well, and tonight the redshirt freshman proved he can, racking up four rebounds and a few baskets.
“I love him,” Wright said. “I think he’s going to be really good. He just needs game experience, there are some things that we do that he doesn’t do instinctually yet, but there are a lot of things he brings to the table, a lot of skill.”
Going forward, Villanova will need to continue to adjust to COVID restrictions, but is happy to be playing, regardless.
“These guys were home all spring, all summer, they got back in the fall and had a 23-day quarantine,” Wright said. “So they’re not worried about going home for Christmas, I might be more worried for them just mentally, but they are so happy to be here and playing.”
For now, they’ll look to prepare for a new opponent and replace Virginia, who had to cancel due to a COVID-related issue. According to Wright, he’s been fielding calls since 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, and will have some time to focus on that after his 600th win celebration.