“The final game in Madison Square Garden is a thrill for anybody that’s in the northeast in basketball,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright leading up to tonight’s game. “You just dream about that.”
Tonight, dream became reality. Not only did the Wildcats get to the championship game, but they also won their first Big East Conference Tournament since 1995.
“It feels good,” said Josh Hart. “We failed last year; we let the past be the past.”
On the biggest stage of Big East basketball in the legendary Madison Square Garden, nerves seemed to play a role in the beginning of the game. Both teams missed a few open looks at the basket. Initially, Xavier was able to hang around with Villanova. Jalen Reynolds made a layup to cut Villanova’s lead down to three with 7:29 left in the first half.
Villanova answered with a 13-2 run that was sparked by Darrun Hilliard and finished by Josh Hart. The Wildcats found their offensive rhythm, while remaining strong defensively. Xavier’s star center Matt Stainbrook was limited to just two points in the first half. The big man who had been hot as of late, was ice cold tonight. He was often met with double teams and incredible pressure. Stainbrook went on to finish with four points and three rebounds.
“They worked harder than him,” said Xavier head coach Chris Mack. “He let his frustration spill over to his play.”
The Wildcats never looked back, their lead would never dip below double digits for the whole game. The run was exactly what they needed and served as the Musketeers’ death sentence. Villanova took a 34-21 lead into halftime.
The second half was where the Wildcats made it clear that they weren’t going to lose. Villanova came bursting out of the locker room, going on an 8-0 run. They played Villanova Basketball – sharing the ball and spreading it out until they find the best shot available. Xavier failed to find good looks to the basket, as Villanova defenders stuck to them like glue. The Musketeers were held to 22-of-58 (37.9%) and a mediocre 2-of-15 (13.3%) from long range.
The Wildcats were on cruise control, as they continued to find success executing their game plan. The Villanova faithful were loud and proud the entire way, cheering for the Wildcats as they were able to extend the lead into the twenties. The Musketeers couldn’t produce an answer offensively, as their top scorers were shut down. Villanova overwhelmed them in all facets of the game.
“They are the true definition of a team,” said Coach Mack. “They’re up there with any of them.”
Seniors Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston received a very warm reception as they checked out of the game. The duo played their final minutes of Big East play for the rest of their lives. Everyone got a piece of the action. Madison Square Garden was shaking when the Bench Mob entered the game. Nova Nation had even more to cheer for when the final buzzer sounded and the celebration began.
Villanova was presented the Big East Tournament trophy and cut down the nets. As expected, Josh Hart was named tournament MVP. He joins an exclusive club that includes Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, and Kemba Walker.
“It’s an honor, it’s definitely humbling,” said Hart. “I just have my teammates to thank for that, they kept on finding me. I was just having fun.”
The sophomore guard put together a dominant postseason performance. He scored 53 points through three games and did so in an efficient manner. Hart shot a combined 21-for-29 overall and was 9-for-14 from long range.
“We’ve all heard about the sophomore jinx,” said Coach Wright. “He had a great freshman year. He came back and had an even better sophomore year.”
Aside from Hart, Dylan Ennis and Darrun Hilliard added solid performances. Ennis had a game-high 16 points. He chipped in six rebounds and three assists. Hilliard finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and two steals. Both Ennis and Hilliard were named to the All-Tournament Team.
For Xavier, Dee Davis and Jalen Reynolds each had 13 points. The Musketeers’ top two scorers, Stainbrook and Bluiett, combined for only six points.
This was Jay Wright’s first Big East Tournament finals appearance and the first conference title as Villanova’s head coach.
“It’s a thrill. This is my favorite tournament,” said Coach Wright. “To play in it is great. To win it, I can’t even tell you.”
With the Big East Tournament all said and done, the Wildcats have their eyes set on their new objective: the NCAA Tournament. They will be celebrating tonight and for tomorrow’s Selection Sunday. Come Monday, it’ll be back to work.
Big East Tournament All-Tournament Team:
Jalen Reynolds, Xavier
Dylan Ennis, Villanova
Darrun Hilliard, Villanova
D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown
Kris Dunn, Providence
Big East Tournament MVP: Josh Hart, Villanova