As Creighton coach Gregg McDermott said back in February, “Nobody wants to see that team in the Garden, nobody.”
McDermott’s words after suffering a double-digit loss were prophetic and more than just flattery. While it had been a turbulent year for the Villanova Wildcats, they started to build momentum late in the season.
The defending Big East Tournament champs made quite the entrance in their opening round game as the No. 6 seed against rival Georgetown, burying the Hoyas — and potentially Patrick Ewing’s coaching tenure on the Hilltop — with a three-point barrage in a building where they had built up a championship pedigree in recent years.
Fresh off of a tough double-digit loss against UConn to end the regular season, the ‘Cats bounced back by hitting a season-high 15 three-pointers and posting their largest margin of victory in an 80-48 win over the Hoyas.
“I was proud of the way our guys came out and competed, we fought hard from the beginning,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said. “They didn’t really score on us in the half-court. We got back, got stops, got out in transition. Really proud of our guys.”
On the other end of the court, they kept Georgetown off the scoreboard for a five-minute stretch early into the first half, while the ‘Cats quickly built a double-digit lead and hardly looked back.
While the first two Villanova-Georgetown meetings had moments where it was close, this higher-stakes rematch had little doubt.
“They hit some tough shots early, we tried to switch on everything in the first half,” Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing said. “Our bigs didn’t get on some of those threes or they contested late. We talk about contesting high and they weren’t able to do that, and they hit those shots. ... Their defensive intensity picked up and then they started making shots and it was like the floodgates.”
Villanova amassed a 41-20 halftime lead.
The Hoyas never had an answer for the Wildcats’ big first half, and Villanova continued to ride the momentum the rest of the way.
Eight different Wildcats hit from deep at least once in Wednesday’s win. The Wildcats surpassed their previous season-high mark of 14 three-pointers in a win over St. Joe’s on Dec. 17.
“We know we can shoot the ball, so we’re not really worried about makes or misses,” Villanova guard Justin Moore said. “Sometimes, it’s just one of those games where we’re hitting on a higher clip, but we were focused on defense. That’s what got us over the hump.”
Defensively, the ‘Cats clamped Georgetown and held them to a 19-of-56 (33.9%) shooting clip overall and a 3-of-20 (15.0%) mark from long range.
Cam Whitmore paced the ‘Cats with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, with 10 rebounds to complete a double-double effort.
The newly-crowned Big East Freshman of the Year wasn’t trying to make a statement.
“Just playing the game, playing for my teammates and coaches,” he said. “The accolades aren’t as important.”
Justin Moore added 13 points, six rebounds and two steals. Mark Armstrong, Brendan Hausen and Brandon Slater each had 10 points in the win.
For Georgetown, Primo Spears led the Hoyas with 17 points, five boards and two steals. Brandon Murray and Jay Heath each finished with eight points.
As for his future, Ewing kept it vague.
“No thoughts about my future, the last two seasons have been rough,” Ewing said. “Disappointed in the outcomes of these last two years, but my future is in the hands of our president and our AD, and the Board of Directors.
“I listened to Coach Boeheim after the game and everybody was ranting about are you coming back or not. I’m proud of be a Georgetown Hoya, this institution has been great to me over the years. I would be honored to be able to be back here.”
The Wildcats’ near-future though, is much clearer. They improve to 17-15 and advance to the Big East Tournament quarterfinals to take on third-seeded Creighton, where McDermott will have to face the team he didn’t want to meet. It’ll be the first time the ‘Cats are the lower seed in a Big East Tournament game since realignment.
Thursday’s quarterfinal game is slated for the nightcap, a 9:30 p.m. ET start at Madison Square Garden.
“I think we’re still a work in progress, our goal is to be the best team we can be by the end of the season,” Neptune said. “We can still reach that goal.”