It was a tale of two completely opposite games on Day 3 of the BIG EAST Tournament at Madison Square Garden. After a fantastic first semifinal matchup between Providence and Xavier, the #2 Villanova Wildcats punched their ticket to tomorrow’s BIG EAST Championship game, defeating the #6 Butler Bulldogs 87-68.
Coming into this game, Villanova and Butler split the regular season series with each team winning on their home floor. The Bulldogs handed Villanova their first loss of the season on December 30th, defeating the Wildcats 101-90. The Wildcats had to rally in their second meeting to upend Butler 86-75 on February 10th at the Wells Fargo Center.
Tonight, the Wildcats were off to a quick start, scoring the first 19 points of the game.
With 15:37 left to play in the first half, Butler head coach LaVall Jordan was forced to take an early timeout, after starting the game 0-4 from the field.
It would take Butler five and a half minutes to shake off the rust, earning their first basket off of an Aaron Thompson jumper. Through Butler’s putrid start, the Wildcats were red-hot from the floor, converting 7 of their first eight shots, including 3-4 from behind the arc.
With a 22-5 lead at the 12:24 mark, Villanova would already be in the bonus, with Kamar Baldwin and Tyler Wideman committing two fouls each.
A Jalen Brunson floater would increase Villanova’s lead to 28-8 with 11:11 to play in the first half.
Butler’s offensive catalyst, Kelan Martin, would be scoreless until the 4:27 mark in the first half, converting on a six-foot jumper.
Still, Butler would convert six of eight attempts in a five-minute span with 2:23 left to play in the first. Butler quietly cut the deficit to 14 points, at 37-23, in that time span.
The Wildcats would end the half on a 9-4 run, thanks to a last-second three-point field goal by Phil Booth from the top of the key, increasing their lead to 19 points at 44-25.
The Phil Booth three-pointer was just enough to give Butler their largest deficit of the season. Their previous halftime deficit this season was 18 points at Georgetown on December 27th. (The Bulldogs came away with a 91-89 victory in the nation’s capital, in what proved to be a double-overtime classic.)
Villanova’s Mikal Bridges highlighted his team’s aggressiveness as the key to their brilliant 19-0 run to start the game. Bridges: “My coaches and teammates told me to be aggressive and having that aggressive mindset, in the beginning, helped me out, helped the team out.”
”I think tonight had a lot more to do with them coming out and they didn’t miss. We weren’t as solid as we had been,” said Butler head coach LaVall Jordan, regarding Villanova’s 19-0 run to start the game.
He continued, “I’m extremely proud of our group for just responding. I thought our guys continued to fight the entire way and found some smooth air at a certain point to cut into the lead a bit and they responded.”
”As we talked about in the locker room, circumstances don’t define you as much as how you respond to the circumstances.,” stated Jordan.
Two quick Butler lay-ups by Kamar Baldwin and Tyler Wideman briefly cut Villanova’s lead to 17 points but a 3-point field goal by Mikal Bridges at the 17:04 mark in the second half, erased any momentum from Butler.
All five Villanova starters finished in double-digits, including Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson’s 18 points and 17 respective points. Big East Freshman of the Year Omari Spellman finished with a double-double, 12 points, and 12 rebounds. Eric Paschall and Phil Booth also combined for 24 points.
Jay Wright was extremely happy with his team’s defense in their semifinal win. “That was one of our best defensive performances. We played well and they’re a really good offensive team.”
He continued, “they still shot 48 percent and we thought we played really well defensively, but the first half, the start defensively, I think was the difference for us.”
Big East First-Team All-Star Kelan Martin led the way for the Butler Bulldogs, finishing with 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists.
”That’s a heck of a basketball team that we just played. A lot of credit goes to them for coming out with the level of intensity that they did. Obviously, they made a ton of shots,” said LaVell Jordan after their loss to Villanova.
He continued, “sometimes you have to give the other team credit and shake their hands. If they continue to play like that, they’ll be playing for a long time in March.”
The Wildcats are headed to their fourth-straight Big East Championship game. Tomorrow night, the Wildcats will be in pursuit of their third Big East Tournament title in four years. Tip-off is set for 6:30 PM and can be seen on FOX.