After plenty of heartbreaks and could’ve-should’ve-would’ves in an up-and-down year, the Villanova Wildcats got back in the win column with their biggest victory of the season.
The best part? The ‘Cats looked like themselves. After working hard to recover and return to the court, Justin Moore had, statistically, his best showing since Nov., 9, 2021. Moore netted a game-high 25 points on an efficient 10-of-13 shooting, with three boards, three assists and a steal.
“He’s not just our best player, he’s also our leader,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said. “He’s the guy everyone respects in the locker room. He’s our smartest guy, he’s everything for our team. ... A lot of credit goes to that kid. He really didn’t have to come back this year. I’m sure there were a lot of people saying not to come back, and he just wanted to help our team and be there for his brothers.
“He hasn’t been 100%, I don’t think he still is 100% and I don’t know if he’ll be 100% this year, but we appreciate everything he does for us. He did a great job tonight.”
Villanova stormed ahead after a poor start and trailing in the first half, kicking things up a notch in the second half. Defensively, it was impressive. After giving up a season-high 88 points to Xavier in their previous meeting, they limited the Musketeers and stood firm, with the final seconds coming down to that good old Villanova hustle, players diving for a loose ball after a critical stop to secure the win.
The Wildcats stunned the No. 16-ranked Musketeers at the Cintas Center, 64-63, and picked up their first Quad 1 and ranked win of the season.
“Definitely had to focus in, they came out to play and punched us in the mouth to start,” Neptune said. “They’re a really hard team to scout. No matter what you see them do, the way they move the ball and share the ball is pretty imposing. It kind of took us a while to get used to their speed to run their offense. I thought our guys settled down and got some stops that led to the win.”
Although the ‘Cats took great care of the ball and logged just seven turnovers for the game, they coughed it up four times in the final minutes, but managed to stay firm.
An Eric Dixon layup, followed by a Jordan Longino and-one, gave the ‘Cats a 61-57 edge at the 3:18 mark, plus the lead for good.
Moore topped his big night with a crucial three-pointer from the top of the arc at the 2:13 mark.
Xavier chipped away at the deficit, with a basket by Adam Kunkel, plus a pair of Souley Boum free throws to make it a one-point game. The Wildcats had one last possession, but Dixon was whistled for a travel while driving to the basket, giving the Musketeers one last opportunity to snatch the game with possession of the ball at 11 seconds.
Villanova stood tall defensively, forcing a wild shot out of Boum. The loose ball bounced off the backboard and amid the scramble, which burned off most of the clock, Brandon Slater was able to come up with it and a held ball was awarded to the ‘Cats.
“We got stops when we needed to,” Neptune said of the biggest differences between this win and past games. “Our guys, I thought their toughness was unbelievable. We were really connected.”
While it was a much-improved second half, because at first, it didn’t look like the ‘Cats would be in a position to win. After Xavier took its biggest lead of the game, the ‘Cats responded with a 10-0 run to close the gap into a more manageable deficit. The Musketeers held a 36-30 lead at halftime.
After the break, Xavier strung together the first few baskets to rebuild a double-digit lead. The ‘Cats called time out to settle down.
“Our guys just played harder in the second half,” Neptune said. “When we were down 10 (in the second half), the guys took over the huddle and they were talking to each other. I thought that was the turning point of the game, when they took it over as a bunch, as a unit. Makes me proud.”
After Justin Moore broke a nearly four-minute long scoring drought, they started their rally. It also helped forcing 14 Xavier turnovers, with 10 of them coming in the second half.
“Our guys are proud, because outside of the first five, six or seven minutes, we played extremely hard for the rest of the game,” Neptune said. “That’s our goal, just play as hard as we can. They do that for their brothers on the court and if we do that, we’re happy with the results.”
Aside from Moore, Cam Whitmore had 11 points and four boards. Dixon finished with eight points, five boards and four assists. Caleb Daniels also had eight points. Mark Armstrong logged a game-high plus/minus rating of +12, with Chris Arcidiacono right behind at +8.
For Xavier, Souley Boum led with 17 points, including four made 3-pointers. Jerome Hunter added 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Jack Nunge had a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double. Adam Kunkel finished with 10 points. Zach Freemantle, who logged 29 points against the ‘Cats in their last meeting, was continued to be sidelined with a foot injury.
Villanova is now 14-14 overall, and 8-9 in Big East play. The Wildcats will return to action at home on Saturday for a 12 p.m. ET game against Creighton at the Wells Fargo Center.