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Villanova’s season ends at Liberty in 62-57 NIT first round loss

The Flames had an answer for every Wildcat basket.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament Quarterfinals - Creighton vs Villanova Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There were many highs and lows throughout the 2022-23 season, and Tuesday night certainly wasn’t one of Villanova’s shining moments.

The Wildcats fell on the road in the opening round of the NIT, losing to No. 2-seeded Liberty, 62-57, officially putting an end to an even 17-17 season for the ‘Cats.

“Congrats to Liberty, I thought their defense was unbelievable,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said. “They made a lot of timely shots, they’re a tough team. Happy for those guys.”

It was a defensive battle for most of the game, but at times there were also poor offensive stretches by both teams, which helped keep it a tight battle throughout the way — whether it was a bad decision that led to a turnover, a forced shot, missed open ones, or lack of movement.

The ‘Cats never went away quietly, even as Liberty used a 9-0 run to take its largest lead of the game late in the first half, a nine-point margin in the final minute before halftime.

Villanova got a basket to trim the deficit to a 32-25 game at the break. The ‘Cats kept it close throughout, but whenever Villanova finally cut it to a one-possession game, the Flames showed great poise and seemed to have an answer to deflate Villanova’s momentum.

Liberty held firm and the ‘Cats just never got over the hump.

Darius McGhee hit a three-pointer with less than two minutes to go to give the Flames a six-point cushion.

Although Villanova’s Mark Armstrong quickly answered with a dunk, the ‘Cats had a couple of empty-handed possessions, while Liberty hit necessary free throws to pull away as the clock continued to wind down.

“They just made plays defensively,” Neptune said. “They were really scrappy and had us on our heels.”

Brandon Slater led the Wildcats with 18 points, nine rebounds and two steals. Eric Dixon added a 12-point, 13-rebound double-double. Mark Armstrong, who was inserted into the starting lineup, showed plenty of promise for the ‘Cats.

He was the only player to log a positive plus/minus rating, finishing with a team-best +5. Armstrong finished with 12 points, five rebounds, three assists, four steals, one block and had just one turnover. Jordan Longino also had a starting role, but had just eight points on 2-of-8 shooting, plus four boards and a block.

“Mark is dynamic,” Neptune said. “He did a great job of getting to the rim. Thought he did a good job of sharing the ball, getting us some offense. He’ll be a special player for us moving forward.”

Caleb Daniels struggled throughout the night, logging four points on 2-of-15 shooting, and he went 0-for-9 from long range. As a team, the Wildcats were sleeping in the streets once again, shooting just 4-of-26 (15.4%) from beyond the arc.

Armstrong and Longino were given the nod to join the starting five after Justin Moore and Cam Whitmore were both listed as out.

As for Liberty, McGhee tormented the ‘Cats with a game-high 26 points and four assists. 14 of his points and all four of his steals came in the second half.

Colin Porter added 14 points and seven rebounds, and he was a crucial shooter at the free throw line, giving the Flames much-needed cushioning down the stretch.

“I think our young guys got a lot of good experience,” Neptune said. “We got a pretty young team, a lot of young guys out there right now. Those guys will take those experiences and we’ll go on to next year, and we’ll get better.”