If you had Villanova as the final unbeaten team left standing in Big East play, cash those tickets — then take your nitroglycerin pills.
Much like the journey the Wildcats had taken this season to reach this point, Wednesday night’s game with Xavier was filled with ups and downs, and the late-game stretch had all the makings for another edition of Cardiac ‘Cats.
Despite making only one shot in the final 10 minutes and none in the last six, the Wildcats held firm defensively and survived for a 66-65 win.
“I loved the way we defended,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said. “If we defend like that, clean up rebounds, we’ll be in a great spot.”
A Dayvion McKnight layup for Xavier cut the lead down to one, and then Eric Dixon missed a pair of free throws, which gave the Musketeers an opportunity to snatch the game away. Desmond Claude’s pull-up jumper clanked off the rim, and the Wildcats hung on in the wild finish.
“We’re going against a good team, they locked in defensively,” Neptune said of the late-game offensive lull. “You go back and forth for a good amount of the game, they get used to what you’re doing, and it gets tougher and tougher towards the end of the game. You go against a good coach, talented players. They scout you and know what you do. We can definitely be better, but the things we can control is playing hard and defending.”
Villanova’s final shot of the game, came with 6:07 remaining, as Jordan Longino drilled a three-pointer through a foul to re-extend the Wildcats’ lead. It appeared to give Villanova some breathing room and a spark, but the ‘Cats couldn’t hit their shots or capitalize being in the double bonus.
Xavier also capitalized on Villanova’s lineups late, especially when the ‘Cats didn’t have any natural playmakers or point guards on the floor in crunch time. The Musketeers deployed traps and presses which disoriented the ‘Cats, and didn’t make things easy.
The Wildcats only scored four points in the final six minutes, all of which came from two pairs of Eric Dixon free throws.
“We’ve been in close games all year,” Neptune said. “We have older guys that have been in those spots. We just gotta execute in some situations. It is what it is. You’re not going to play a perfect game, teams make it tough for you. We play in the Big East.”
Villanova started the game a bit slowly in the first half, before taking the lead for good with a 9-0 run.
The ‘Cats got contributions from all throughout the rotation, with Hakim Hart delivering another solid performance off the bench. He had a team-high 14 points, but got the crowd going with his defense and hustle plays.
“I just been staying with it, listening to my coaches and teammates each and every day in practice,” Hart said of his recent play. “It’s just showing in the game.”
As Justin Moore remains out with a knee injury, Hart has been coming off the bench. Although his play is arguably deserving of a starting role, he doesn’t seem to care if he’s a starter or sixth man.
“Doesn’t matter where I’m hoopin’,” Hart said post-game.
The Wildcats capped a solid first half with a 34-29 lead at the break. They limited Xavier to shooting just 30.6% overall and 2-for-8 (25.0%) from deep in the opening half.
“It’s been a climb,” Neptune said. “I’m excited where we are now (defensively). We have pieces to be a good defensive team and that’s something we knew in the summer/preseason. Now, in league play, that’s our goal — just be the best defensive team we can.”
Hart finished with 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting, with five rebounds, three assists and a block. Dixon had 13 points and nine rebounds. Brendan Hausen chipped in 12 points and went 4-of-7 from long range, making the most three-pointers in a single outing since the Le Moyne game.
Jordan Longino and T.J. Bamba each had eight points.
For Xavier, Quincy Olivari finished with 14 points on 3-of-13 shooting, plus eight boards and three steals. Dayvion McKnight had 12 points, three boards, three assists and a steal. Abou Ousmane had 11 points and six rebounds, while Desmond Claude also had 11 points, with three boards, two assists and two steals.
With the win, Villanova improves to 10-4 overall and 3-0 in Big East play. The Wildcats will now turn their attention to St. John’s, who will be visiting the Finneran Pavilion for a Saturday matinee. Tip-off is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET.