Butler Bulldogs

Villanova makes it look easy at MSG

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Villanova makes it look easy at MSG


NEW YORK -- Phil Booth insisted he was so focused on defense and finding open teammates that he never glanced at the scoreboard.

"I didn't even notice the score was 19-0," he said.

Villanova was rolling, and if a game can be over in the opening 5 minutes, this was the one.

The second-ranked Villanova scored the first 19 points and cruised toward its fourth straight trip in the Big East Tournament championship game in an 87-68 win over Butler on Friday night.

About 30 minutes after top-seeded Xavier was upset by Providence in overtime, the Wildcats (29-4) hit the court and showed how a favorite should play in a tournament semifinal.

Mikal Bridges hit a 3-pointer five seconds into the game and the Wildcats used near-perfect execution on a 16-0 run before Butler coach LaVall Jordan finally called a timeout at the 15:37 mark. He could have waved a white flag to signal for the TO.

Omari Spellman buried a 3 to make it 19-0 and the Wildcats proved why the Big East tournament title always goes through the Main Line and straight to Madison Square Garden. Butler finally scored and heard some mock cheers for the jumper.

"Spot a team like that 16, 19 points, it's going to be really, really tough to dig out," Jordan said.

The Bulldogs failed to find an offensive excavator.

Hey, at least the Bulldogs (20-13) were only down 17 after their first bucket.

Butler called a 30-second timeout with 11:35 left in the second half and trailed by 25 points. Yes, this was a tournament semifinal game.

The Wildcats hit 10 of their first 12 shots that made for an anticlimactic final 35 minutes at the Garden. Providence had rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit and stunned top-seeded and No. 3 Xavier 75-72 in the first conference semifinal that had MSG rocking.

This seemed like a tune-up for a coronation.

Bridges had 18, Big East player of the year Jalen Brunson scored 17 points and Spellman had 12 points and 12 rebounds.

Under coach Jay Wright, Villanova won the tournament in 2015 and 2017 and lost to Seton Hall in 2016. The four straight Big East title games are one shy of Syracuse's record five straight from 1986-1990.

"I think we feel like we're a new team rather than a team that's stale at the end of the year," Wright said.

The Wildcats did split two games against Providence but the Friars are coming off overtime games on consecutive nights and will be a heavy underdog.

Villanova vs. Xavier -- the No. 2 and 3 teams in the AP Top 25 -- had been an anticipated final. The Wildcats lost the outright regular-season title even though it beat the Musketeers twice.

The sixth-seeded Bulldogs stunned third-seeded Seton Hall 75-74 for its first career Big East Tournament victory and a win over the Wildcats on Dec. 30 made it seem like this should have been competitive.

Instead, Kelan Martin, who averaged 21.1 points, scored just four for the Bulldogs in the first half. He finished with 12.

"They had a great game plan for me. Sometimes, you just can't beat it," Martin said.

The Wildcats improved to 14-0 when holding opponents under 70 points.

"That was one of our best defensive performances," Wright said.

The Wildcats hit six 3s, including Booth's at the buzzer, to send them into the break ahead 44-25. Told Villanova could put probably four 3-point shooters on the court, Jordan cracked, "seemed like six."

Big picture
Butler: The Bulldogs are still in good shape for an NCAA Tournament bid and should be in the mix for No. 8 or No. 9 seed. Butler has lost three of four games.

"We'll be fine," Martin said. "We've got something to play for."

Villanova: The Wildcats have won six of seven games and likely clinched a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have won 10 of 11 Big East Tournament games.

Up next
Butler: Butler waits to find out its NCAA Tournament fate

Villanova: The Wildcats beat the Friars 89-69 on Jan. 23 and lost at Providence 76-71 on Feb. 14.

DiVincenzo helps Villanova avoid a nightmare

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DiVincenzo helps Villanova avoid a nightmare


There’s been a lot of talk around these parts lately about dreams and nightmares.

And Saturday afternoon’s matchup for No.1 Villanova sounded like the most nightmarish one possible.

Coming off a stunning 79-75 upset at the hands of St. John’s, which was previously winless in the conference, the shorthanded Wildcats, minus forwards Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, were tasked with facing their Big East kryptonite, Butler, which had toppled Villanova on three straight occasions.

It wasn’t easy, especially early on, but a redheaded Superman stepped out of the phone booth and helped the Wildcats turn the nightmare scenario into the dream of solving that Bulldog kryptonite.

Donte DiVincenzo dropped a career-high 30 points, including 20 during an explosive second half, as the Wildcats overcame an early 13-point deficit to take their first lead early in the second half and never let go of the stranglehold to beat Butler, 86-75, on Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center. It was Villanova’s first win over Butler since Feb. 20, 2016.

The top-ranked Wildcats improved to 23-2 on the season and 10-2 in the conference. Butler fell to 17-9 on the campaign and 7-6 in Big East play. Villanova still hasn’t lost back-to-back games since March 2013.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright admitted afterward that worry had set in early in the contest as the ‘Cats fell behind.

“Yeah, you are,” Wright said. “You realize you have a lot of young guys out there and they have a really good team.”

But enter DiVincenzo to wash the worry away. There was no way this game ended up the way it did without his sterling performance.

Villanova was having trouble keeping up in the first half with hot-shooting Butler, which shot 56 percent from the field and 54 percent from downtown in the first half. Kelan Martin, who also finished with 30 but had 17 in the first half, and the Bulldogs had an answer for everything the ‘Cats threw at them en route to leading 38-30 with 1:48 left in the half.

DiVincenzo started the wildfire of a 21-4 run over the next 6:55 of game time that brought the whiteout-clad sellout crowd of 20,683 to its feet and sent a furious jolt of energy throughout the entire building. It was one those hallmark devastating runs the Wildcats use to just bully teams into submission. This one saw Villanova take supreme control with a 51-42 lead, and the ‘Cats never looked back.

DiVincenzo had 11 of those 21 points.

“I think [Butler] is very good at containing the three and also being able to guard one-on-one,” DiVincenzo said after the victory. “They did a great job guarding one-on-one and sometimes we just did a great job of making shots.”

DiVincenzo’s 30 points bring a gaudy, eye-popping nature to them. And rightfully so as he was spectacular on the offensive end and was clearly the Wildcats’ MVP on this February Saturday. But Wright was way more impressed with something else his redshirt sophomore forward did against the Bulldogs.

“You guys are going to think I’m nuts, but he probably played his best defensive game of the year,” Wright said of DiVincenzo. “He had 30 points, but he was at the top of the zone, he kept people in front of him, he guarded everybody. He was involved in rebounding. He didn’t get a lot, but he was in there keeping balls alive.

“It was really what he did defensively and to be able to play 40 minutes that hard defensively.”

That defensive effort spread throughout the Villanova sideline as the ‘Cats just smothered Butler in the second half. The Bulldogs shooting percentage plummeted to just 34 percent overall and 31 percent from downtown in the final 20 minutes. Villanova, on the other hand, shot 56 percent in the second half and never stopped punishing Butler for its faults until the final buzzer blared throughout South Philadelphia.

“They turned up the energy early in the second half,” Butler’s Martin said. “They just came out and made their shots. Some tough shots, as well. They chipped away, but we fell.”

There was a noticeable difference on the defensive side of the floor for Villanova and it helped turned the tide in the second half.

The Wildcats are notorious for their staunch man-to-man defense. But without both Booth and Paschall, two looming interior presences, Wright decided to dial up a ferocious zone defense that muzzled the Butler attack — the same Butler attack that shot a blistering 15 of 22 from downtown during a 101-93 upset of Villanova back in December in Indianapolis.

“Our man-to-man is a little more complicated,” Wright said. “[Freshman] Jermaine [Samuels] hasn’t been practicing. He’s only been at two practices. We played him and then when we had to play [freshman] Dhamir [Cosby-Roundtree] with two bigs out there. We felt we couldn’t guard them man-to-man. We had Collin [Gillespie], Omari [Spellman] and Jermaine out there, three freshmen in a zone and they did a hell of a job.”

“[Zone] is not that much different,” DiVincenzo said.  “We practice it a lot. So we’re used to playing it because we practice it every day. Like Coach said, we had to put the young guys out there who hadn’t played it that much. But we play it throughout the season and they did a great job out there.

“It’s just communication. Know where their scorers are and just make sure everyone is on the same page.”

While as intense as it gets, the Villanova zone did not catch Butler head coach LaVall Jordan by surprise.  But still, his team’s responses to it were fleeting at best.

“We have to do a better job against a zone like that. It kept us out of the paint,” said Jordan, whose team had just 10 points in the paint all day long.

“We expected some zone just with the injuries they have. Coming into the game, I didn’t know how much to expect. But it’s a part of their package defensively. … We could have handled that better.”

Just what Villanova needs, another weapon in its arsenal.

Injury updates
Wright said after the game that Booth is still weeks away from returning as the guard’s broken hand is still in a cast.

Things are much more cloudy for Paschall, who is out with a concussion suffered in a nasty fall while leaping for a rebound last week vs. Seton Hall.

“With concussion protocol, it’s just one day at a time,” Wright said. “He’s still a number of days away at best-case scenario.”

Villanova conquers Butler demons

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Villanova conquers Butler demons


It took almost two calendar years, but Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson and No. 1 Villanova finally stepped out of the phone booth and conquered their Big East kryptonite.

DiVencenzo starred with a career-high 30 points and Brunson was his typical steady self with 27 points of his own as the Wildcats used a potent second-half run to vanquish its Butler demons with an 86-75 victory at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon. Butler had beaten Villanova three straight times, including an upset in Indianapolis in December.
It was a statement of a rebound win after Wednesday’s stunning loss to St. John’s for Jay Wright’s Wildcats, who improved to 23-2 on the season. Butler fell to 17-9
The hot-shooting Bulldogs jumped out by as many as 13 in the first half and Villanova was grasping for answers. The answers were found in the form of DiVincenzo and a crushing second-half run that bullied the Bulldogs into submission. Villanova took its first lead at 42-40 early in the final half and never relinquished it while turning up the heat in front of a sellout crowd of 20,603 fans clad in white.
Kelan Martin finished with a team-high 30 points in an unsuccessful Butler effort.
The Wildcats still haven’t dropped back-to-back games since March 2013.
Villanova finished its four-game homestand with a 3-1 record, but could fall from the No. 1 perch this week as No. 2 Virginia continues to steamroll the competition.
• The turning point of this game was simple.  Butler led 38-30 with 1:48 left in the first half and the ‘Nova Nation was quietly sitting on its hands. But then the ‘Cats flipped the switch and went on one of their typical devastating runs that just crush an opponent’s spirit. This one was a 21-4 run over the next 6:55 that punished Butler and put the Bulldogs in a 51-42 hole they could never recover from. DiVincenzo, the 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore, was the firestarter during the run as he recorded 11 of the 21 points and sent a jolt of energy throughout the building. Without the explosion from DiVincenzo, who dropped 20 total in the second half, who knows where this game goes?
• Villanova fans surely remember the last meeting with Butler in December when the Bulldogs shot a scorching 15 for 22 from behind the arc en route to the 101-93 upset in Indy. Wright did, too. So to counter, he started freshman guard Collin Gillespie for more quickness and defense on the perimeter. Fellow freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a forward, started Wednesday’s upset loss at the hands of St. John’s. While the justification in Wright’s decision was there, the execution itself lacked as the Bulldogs torched the nets in the first half, shooting 56 percent from the field and 54 percent from downtown. Bad memories came back to life as Butler led by as many as 13. Good thing for Villanova that the rules of basketball state the teams must play two halves.
• Kelan Martin was an unstoppable monster for Butler in this game… in the first half. He led a potent Bulldogs attack. Of course, his 17 points on 6 of 8 shooting, including 5 of 6 from downtown, made an impact. But it was the way he had almost every answer that was so stifling to the Wildcats. After a DiVincenzo trey got the ‘Cats back within four with 5:03 left in the first half, Martin answered with a trey of his own just seconds later. It seemed like it was just going to be one those days for Villanova. But in the second half, there was barely a peep out of Martin. In the ultimate 20 minutes, he was just 4 of 12 for 13 points. After Martin put up 24 in the first meeting, slowing him down was a major key for Villanova in this game. It took until the second half, but mission accomplished.
• The current injury situation is really taking its toll on Villanova. Redshirt junior Phil Booth, a reliable veteran presence at both ends of the floor, is a huge component of the Wildcats’ glue. A game like this is where Wright’s team could have really used Booth, who’s out up to the next month with a broken hand, to calm things down while doing the dirty work he’s known for. Of course, the Wildcats are used to playing without Booth as he missed most of last season with a knee injury. And their depth suffered. Junior forward Eric Paschall and his unique skillset are out indefinitely after a concussion suffered on a nasty fall last Sunday vs. Seton Hall. His 12.8 points and 4.2 boards a game are holes in the lineup, but he’s also shooting 64 percent from the field and 54 percent from downtown on the season. Combine that with his defensive presence inside, and it’s almost like Villanova fans don’t realize all Paschall brings until he’s out of the lineup. Again, much like what Booth brings, all Paschall does on the floor would have been a major boost to the ‘Cats on Saturday.

• Where was Mikal Bridges? Well, he was physically in the Wells Fargo Center, in uniform, but his game was on the side of a milk carton in the press room. With Booth and Paschall out, more responsibility is on Bridges to be the force he can be at both ends of the floor like the 6-foot-7, lottery pick, freak of nature he can be. And he just wasn’t that force in this game. Not even close. It was hard to even notice him when he was on the floor. In the first half, he shot a miserable 1 for 7 from the floor. His one highlight was a steal and flush in the latter stages of the second half that gave ‘Nova a 73-64 lead. He finished with just 10 points on 4 of 13 from the field. Shorthanded Villanova is going to need plenty more from in the coming weeks.
• Those Villanova throwback unis are sweet.
• The coming week is far from easy for Villanova as the Big East grind takes the Wildcats to Providence on Wednesday night and then to Cincy for a mammoth showdown with No. 5 Xavier next Saturday afternoon.