NEW YORK — The way the previous three games of the 2015 Big East tournament went — with an overtime game in the last quarterfinal contest on Thursday night, and the closest semifinal round in the 38-year history of the event the next night — the Big East title game was on track to be a great one between the surprise, sixth-seeded Xavier Musketeers (21-13, 11-10 Big East) and top-seeded Villanova Wildcats (32-2, 19-2 Big East) at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
But reserve sophomore guard Josh Hart was simply too efficient for a third straight game and the Wildcats (32-2) were just too good for the tournament to conclude with anything but an anti-climactic ending, one that finished with an easy 69-52 Villanova victory that produced the Wildcats’ second Big East tournament win — 20 years after their initial one — and their first under head coach Jay Wright. The tournament win also came one year after Villanova was likewise the conference’s No. 1 seed but lost in the Big East quarterfinals to Seton Hall.
Playing 28 minutes off the bench, Hart scored 15 points (on 7-of-9 shooting) and grabbed a team-high seven rebounds, to make him 21 for 29 (72.4 percent) — including 9 for 14 (64.3 percent) — for the tournament and the conference’s first Sixth Man of the Year to also be named the Big East tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Already an emerging star in the conference, Wright believes Hart still has a lot of upside.
“Honestly, he’s about halfway there to what he can be,” Wright said. “He really can be a great player. He had a great freshman year. We all hear about the sophomore jinx, and he came back and had a better sophomore year, which is really difficult to do, because this year people knew who he was, and when he came in the game and knew he was coming in to give us energy. And to do it in all these big games, it just shows you talent, character, and it also shows you how much better he can get.”
Speaking humbly (in the way one would expect for the best player of a tournament to also be the sixth man on such a selfless team), Hart said, “I got to shout out to my teammates. The confidence they had in me. They kept on finding me when I was open. When you have the confidence of your teammates, you’re able to go out there, play and have fun. So that’s just what I did.”
With respect to being mentioned as the tournament’s best player along former greats like Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Kemba Walker, Hart said, “It’s an honor. It’s definitely humbling to be in that list of guys… but like I said, I’ve got to thank my teammates for that… I’ve just got to say it’s a great honor, and it’s definitely humbling.”
A model of consistency throughout the tournament, Hart was a very similar 7-for-10 in each of the Wildcats’ prior two tournament games (an 84-49 quarterfinal drubbing of ninth-seeded Marquette, followed by a 63-61 semifinal win over fourth-seeded Providence).
Fittingly, junior guard Dylan Ennis (who led all scorers with 16 points, while getting six boards) and senior guard Darrun Hilliard II (12 points) joined Hart with scoring in double figures, while making the All-Tournament team along with Xavier sophomore forward Jalen Reynolds, Georgetown guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Providence forward Kris Dunn.
Reynolds scored nine of his 13 points in the second half and senior guard Dee Davis had 11 of his 13 in that half as well, but no other Musketeer recorded more than seven points for the game, as Villanova built a 13-point halftime lead and Xavier never got closer than that margin in the second half.
With two players on the All-Tournament team and the tournament’s best player, the Wildcats ended a wait of nearly a decade since the last time they had even one player on the All-Tournament team (when guard Randy Foye made the team in 2006).
They also garnered some special attention for their head coach, Jay Wright, who won his first championship in a tournament that he called his “favorite,” long after he led Hofstra to consecutive America East Conference titles in 2000 and 2001, during his only other head coaching job.
While Wright was the America East Coach of the year in those two seasons, and received the same honor for the second straight time and fourth overall in the Big East this season, he became the first coach since Boston College’s Al Skinner (in 2001) to win the Big East tournament and Big East Coach of the Year Award in the same season.
Wright’s squad also became the first team to win a Big East tournament in the same season it won 15 straight conference games.
“It’s a thrill, man,” Wright said. “I grew up coming to this tournament as a fan. When I coached at Hofstra, I would make sure, even if we were in the championship game, which was always 11:00 a.m., I’d come here to this tournament to watch Villanova [later in the day]. This is my favorite tournament.
“I love the NCAA Tournament, obviously, but this is where we’re all from. We’re all from the Northeast. New York, Madison Square Garden is the Mecca, and so to come here and just play in it is a thrill for us. To win it, I can’t even tell you. I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet. I do know we’re going to have to forget about it, though, on Monday.”
For the Musketeers, there’s no such certainty that they’ll be happy by then, as they wait out Selection Sunday for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, while the Wildcats seem well-positioned to get a one seed in that tournament.
Losses, by 13 points on the road and by a dozen at home in Xavier’s two regular season meetings with Villanova won’t help, but a 31 RPI, the run to the Big East final and victories over Cincinnati (with an RPI of 37) and three wins in as many tries (including one in the Big East tournament semifinals) over nationally ranked Georgetown should greatly improve the Musketeers’ chances.
Wright believes they’re already in the NCAA tournament thanks to a 74-73 win Xavier eked out at last-place Creighton in the Musketeers’ regular season finale.
“That game they had to win at Creighton was a tough game. I think that one put them in the [NCAA] tournament,” Wright said.
In any case, competing against other teams for an NCAA tournament spot might be easier than trying to win a Big East tournament against the Wildcats (who were playing in their first Big East final in 18 years).
“We weren’t very good tonight,” head coach Chris Mack said. “Villanova had a heck of a lot to do with it. I know the guys next to me (Mack’s players at the postgame press conference) and some of the guys in the locker room are tired of hearing it, but that’s where the bar is in this league. They set the standard.”
And they did so right from the start in the title game, when Ennis gave the Wildcats a quick lead with a straightaway 3-pointer on the game’s opening possession. After junior guard Remy Abell (seven points) scored the next four points, to give Xavier its only lead, Ennis made his second shot to put Villanova ahead to stay, 5-4.
Although the Wildcats shot 50 percent (24 for 48), they missed their next five shots until redshirt senior forward JayVaughn Pinkston (seven points) made his first two shots and Hart did the same to cap an 8-2 run that extended Villanova’s edge to 13-6.
Jumpers by Davis and center Matt Stainbrook (four points) brought the Musketeers within four points, until Hilliard scored his first points on a left wing 3-pointer that put the Wildcats up, 17-10, a little past the midpoint of the first half.
Reserve sophomore guard Davis Myles (four points) and Reynolds scored on layups to close the gap to three points before Villanova ran off the next 10 points — on another trey and layup from Hilliard, a 3-pointer by freshman guard Phil Booth (eight points) and a Hart layup, to grow its lead to 25-14 with 5:20 left before intermission.
Junior forward James Farr (seven points) hit a baseline jumper to give Xavier its first points in more than three minutes, but a 3-pointer by Hart opened a 30-16 Wildcats lead on the next trip.
Two free throws by Ennis swelled Villanova’s advantage to 16 points, before a left corner trey in the final minute of the half by Abell cut the difference to 13 points by halftime.
Abell was the only Musketeer with more than four points in the half, and along with Reynolds, one of only two Xavier players with more than four points before the break. The Musketeers shot just 33.3 percent (10-for-30) and the Wildcats, 52 percent (13-for-25) in the half.
Xavier missed its first four shots of the second half as Villanova hit three of its first four — a 3-pointer by Hilliard, an Ennis layup and junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono’s only points of the game, on a trey (after four first-half misses), to double up the Musketeers, 42-21, and provide the game’s largest lead.
Making its next three shots, Xavier closed to within 15 points, but Booth’s second trey pushed the margin to 48-29.
Reynolds tried to keep the Musketeers in the game with a personal 7-4 run, just before a Dee Davis 3-point play trimmed the Wildcats’ advantage to 54-41 halfway through the second stanza.
However, an Ennis triple, two free throws from Booth and an offensive rebound and putback by Hart ballooned the lead to 61-41 with 7:59 to go. From that point, Xavier never got closer than 65-49, with 3:59 left.
As Villanova neared the championship, the Garden crowd roared with loud “Let’s Go Nova!” chants in the final two minutes.
Afterwards, Mack further praised the Wildcats while giving them a legitimate shot to cut down the nets one more time this season.
“They have a chance to win a National Championship, and they are not given nearly enough credit for how tough of a team they are, how hard they play, how unselfish they are,” Mack said. “They’re the true definition of a team. “I haven’t been doing this as long as some coaches out there, but I’ve been in some really good leagues, and I’ve seen some really good teams, and they’re up there with an of them.”
In response to those words, Wright said, “I appreciate that from Chris. He doesn’t just throw things around like that… we could win it [all]. But we could get beat by anybody. It’s just the way college basketball is. We’re not (top-ranked and undefeated) Kentucky in terms of depth and talent, but we could beat them. But we could lose to a 15 or 16, too, if we don’t play right. I just think that’s what we are.”
Of course, Wright is well aware that to sometimes go far in the NCAA tournament, a team often has to survive at least one scare before coming right back with a much better game and a big win.
Thanks to their tense, two-point semifinal win in the final seconds (with the help of a questionable call) before blowing out Xavier in the championship game, the Wildcats had perhaps the perfect type of preparation heading into the Big Dance.
Hart and Ennis each nodded their heads in agreement when Wright said, “That [semifinal] game for us last night was great for us after [we won] it. When you’re in it, you don’t ask for one of those, but that was great for us. It really was because we had a lot of chances to lose that game and we battled. Those games are good for you. When you get in the NCAA tournament, if you make a run, you definitely have those games. I’m glad we got it in the [Big East] tournament.”
Time will tell over the next few weeks how much that might actually help, but for now, Villanova — which enter the NCAA tournament on a 15-game winning streak — at least looks like one of the nation’s best few teams.
And according to Ennis, what has made the Wildcats so successful this season is the belief they have in themselves, as instilled by Wright.
“It’s the confidence Coach puts in us,” he said. “We trust in what he does… we have the confidence in each other as well as Coach. We just stick together.”
And Villanova won’t back down from anyone, not even the clear-cut best team in the country.
“I think Kentucky is a great team,” Ennis added. “Whoever is put in front of us, we approach it the same way… I think if we play Villanova basketball, we’re a tough group of guys. If we stick to our core values, I think we can beat anybody.
“As Coach said, we can get beat by anybody as well. But I think if we continue to play with each other and play confident… Coach gives us all the confidence in the world. If we play defense how we’ve been doing, I think we should be fine [against] anybody.”