The Pavilion had never seen a No. 1 ranked team set foot on its court before Saturday afternoon.
Not only was it the first game at the Pavilion where Villanova was ranked No. 1, but it was also the last time that Villanova’s seniors donned their home jerseys for the last time in front a true home crowd – the student section.
The Wildcats pulled away late in the second half to emerge victorious over the visiting Bulldogs, earning a 77-67 win over Butler.
“They’re a tough matchup for us,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “They’re as good as anyone else.”
The Bulldogs used a zone defense to keep the Wildcats at bay for portions of the game, using that as an opportunity to get back into the game.
While it was Senior Day, it was actually the juniors that actually came to the forefront to help Villanova pull off the win.
Only two Wildcats eclipsed double figures in points – Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Hart finished with a double-double, notching a team-high 22 points and 12 rebounds. Meanwhile, Jenkins added 20 points and six rebounds.
They provided a much needed offensive spark in the second half, combing for 26 of Villanova’s 43 second half points.
“I talked to coach and he talked to me about valuing myself as more than just scoring the basketball,” Hart said, of his performance. “It’s about making hustle plays, rebounding, defending, all of those little things. When you do all of those things, offense comes. Everyone has the opportunity to make plays and to make shots.”
After a shooting slump that lasted for the first five minutes of the second half, where Villanova failed to make a basket during that stretch.
The Wildcats saw their 34-25 halftime lead slowly evaporate as the Bulldogs climbed back into the game. Villanova and Butler traded the lead a couple of times.
“We came out a little sluggish,” Wright said. “We weren’t aggressive defensively. It only takes a little bit against [Butler]. They had us stagnant offensively.”
Once the Bulldogs took a 45-43 lead with 11:02 remaining in the game, Villanova was able to find its groove once again. The ‘Cats responded by outscoring them 30-14 for the next 9:30.
The Wildcats nailed key free throws down the stretch to maintain a double figure lead over the Bulldogs, but their opponents did not go away quietly.
A couple of steals led to quick baskets for Butler, even when the game seemed already out of reach.
Regardless, there wasn’t enough time to mount an improbable comeback, as Villanova continued to take time off the clock and answer the call at the charity stripe.
The Wildcats were almost perfect at the free throw line, making 19-of-21 (90.5 percent) of their attempts for the game.
As for the Bulldogs, Kelan Martin led the way with 19 points. Kellen Dunham added 13 points and eight boards. Roosevelt Jones had 16 points and five rebounds.
“We knew tonight was going to be a challenge, coming here playing on Senior Day,” Butler head coach Chris Holtmann said. “Those seniors are deserving of all the accolades that come their way. They’re terrific players.”
Before the game, Villanova’s five seniors were honored in a pre-game ceremony: Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Henry Lowe, Patrick Farrell, and Kevin Rafferty.
“It was special; it’s something I’ll never forget,” Arcidiacono said. “It’s a day that I’ll cherish, and I was glad we were able to come out with a win.”
Now with Butler behind them, Wright and his team have their eyes set on their next opponent – a rematch with #5 Xavier. This time around, the Wildcats won’t have the comfort of their home arena.
“That’s going to be a battle,” Hart said. “Last couple of years, it’s been tough going down there.”