Love was in the air Tuesday night as the Villanova Wildcats played host to the Butler Bulldogs on a very special edition of Valentine’s Day hoops in the Big East.
In addition to the holiday, it was also senior night, as the fans showered plenty of love while the team honorably celebrated the careers of a trio of seniors; Justin Moore, Eric Dixon and Chris Arcidiacono.
“Yeah it was special, but it was just special to be out there competing with our guys,” said senior Justin Moore.
All week in practice Kyle Neptune and company stressed the importance of getting out to a hot start. In their last meeting, a two point advantage turned into a quick twelve point first half advantage for the Bulldogs, a deficit the Wildcats would not be able to overcome.
Although they didn’t come out blistering hot on the offensive end, their tough hard-nosed defense helped set the tone and allowed Villanova to establish control, pulling of a third-straight win by beating Butler, 62-50. The Bulldogs had their moments, but in Tuesday’s rematch there was no double-digit hole or massive gap to climb out of.
“We take pride in our defense, defensive rebounding, that is going to carry us, and then just continue to take our shots and be aggressive,” said Justin Moore on the recipe for success when shots were not falling all night.
A dime of a pass from Eric Dixon found a cutting Caleb Daniels who jammed in the final basket of the first half as time expired to give the Wildcats a 25-24 lead going into the half, the finishing touches on a long back-and-forth opener.
After not scoring the entire first half, mostly because of two early fouls putting him on the bench, it took Brandon Slater just twelve seconds to get on the board in the second half by way of a tough and-one layup.
Some more back and forth action was finally snapped around the 15-minute mark, as Villanova would use the momentum they gained on the defensive end and turned it into a 7-0 run over a two and a half minute span.
An extremely controversial foul call on Mark Armstrong dug the Bulldogs out of their offensive rut and cut the Wildcat lead to just four with a little over 11 minutes to go in the second half.
Butler would intermittently threaten, but the Wildcats would always have an answer as they rode the momentum of the capacity crowd at the Finneran Pavilion to a much needed home win.
The story of this game for the Wildcats was defense, once again, pulling out a win while holding the opponent to under 70 points for the fourth time in a row and below 55 for the second straight outing.
“I thought our defensive effort, from start to finish, was unbelievable,” said Villanova coach Kyle Neptune.
The addition of Justin Moore and Jordan Longino helps tremendously, but the multiple defensive sets and adjustments from the coaching staff is worth noting.
The offense was less than spectacular tonight, with contested shots going up early in the shot clock and a fair share of iso-ball, but there were also a lot of encouraging improvements as well. Villanova finished the night with 11 assists and just 6 turnovers, a recipe for success that will bode for them down a tough-five game stretch they are about to embark on. Butler did not have any points off of Villanova turnovers all night.
“Yeah, I mean, that is the hallmark of a good team, when we are taking care of the ball and getting our guys shots,” said Neptune.
The Wildcats had another balanced scoring attack led by Justin Moore’s 15 point outing. Caleb Daniels added 13 points and three rebounds. Cam Whitmore and Eric Dixon each finished with nine points and seven rebounds. Brandon Slater rounded out the scoring with eight including the dunk of the year to close the game for the Wildcats.
“Normally I am locked in the game, but when I saw him dunk the ball, I almost fell over on the court,” Daniels said of the ferocious slam.
The Butler Bulldogs were led by Jayden Taylor’s 20-point, three-assist outing. Manny Bates also had a solid night, just one rebound shy of a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds.
Villanova improves to 13-13 overall and 7-8 in Big East play. Its winning streak will truly get put to the test in an upcoming gauntlet that begins with a road trip to Providence on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. ET.