No. 3 Villanova had a week to stew over its first loss of the season, a 101-93 loss to Butler last Saturday in Indianapolis, and figure out a way to wash the bitter taste of defeat out of its mouth.
“We had a long week after getting our butts kicked,” Wildcats head coach Jay Wright said.
“No one was in a good mood.”
A trip home to South Philly, career nights from two less-heralded Wildcats and a typically steady night from the always-heralded Jalen Brunson was just what Wright ordered on a milestone night.
Eric Paschall tied a career-high with 19 points, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree added a career-high 10 of his own and Brunson added a team-high 27 (and eight assists) as Villanova held off a late Marquette surge to down the Golden Eagles, 100-90, at Wells Fargo Center Saturday night.
The win pushed the ‘Cats record to 14-1 on the season and 2-1 in Big East play. The Golden Eagles’ fell to 11-5 overall and 2-2 in the conference.
With victory No. 400, Wright inched closer to becoming Villanova’s all-time wins leader. Alexander Severance, who coached on the Main Line from 1936-61, is currently atop the list with 413 victories. If Villanova goes on another long tear, Wright could tie Severance as early as Feb. 21 vs. DePaul and vault past him as early Feb. 24 at Creighton.
Ever the spotlight-shunning coach, Wright, knee-deep in his 17th season at Villanova, predictably was coy when asked after the game about his achievement.
“I’m just happy we took a step defensively tonight,” Wright said. “I promise you, one day when I’m finished that I will look back on it with great pride. I promise you that. And I will feel really good about it. I’m happy to have been here that long. That’s really nice.”
Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski took a much different route when asked about the achievement of his Saturday evening counterpart. He went the effusive-praise route.
“Jay’s as good a coach as there is in the United States,” Wojciechowski said. “In my mind, he’s a future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. The league right now goes through Villanova. I think he handles the mantle of being the marquee coach in our conference as much class and dignity as you can handle it. He’s created an incredible program at Villanova.”
On the court, the redshirt junior Paschall got the ‘Cats off to a burning-hot start with three early treys to help put overmatched Marquette into a hole the Golden Eagles never could claw their way out of. Villanova’s first-half lead reached as many as 14 points. For the game, it went as high as 17 early in the second half.
“The only thing I thought about was just to shoot it,” said Paschall, who entered the contest shooting just 25 percent from three-point land on the year. He hit all three attempts Saturday. “I don’t really think about that. I just have to play defense.”
Cosby-Roundtree, the 6-foot-8 true freshman forward out of South Philly’s Neumann-Goretti High, filled his line on the stat sheet on a perfect 5 for 5 from the field. All 10 of his points, including a huge dunk on a fast break, came in the first half when the ‘Cats built up their insurmountable advantage.
Cosby-Roundtree is set to have an expanded role in the coming weeks with fellow big Jermaine Samuels both on the shelf with a hand injury. If Saturday was a taste of what’s to come, Wright surely liked what he saw.
“Dhamir was awesome. I’m so happy for him,” Wright said. “It’s hard to come into this program as a freshman, especially as a freshman big. We need him. And he did a great job.”
It’s almost easy to take Brunson’s smoothness on the court for granted. Coming off a showing at Butler when he scored 31 points to match a career-high, he controlled the floor with his 27 points on 8 for 15 shooting 9 for 11 from the free-throw line and and steadied Villanova when Marquette pushed back in the second half and cut the lead down to as little as five as late as 43 seconds left.
“They’re a great team and they have a great point guard,” Wojciechowski said. “Any team with a double-figure lead with a point guard like Jalen Brunson, who’s as good a guard there is in the country, catch-up is not the ideal place to be.”
You want balance? Try this on for size: six Wildcats finished in double figures. That’ll get the job done.
The Wildcats knew they’d be in for a stiff test against Marquette junior guard Markus Howard, who made national headlines earlier in the week, and rightfully so, for his spectacular 52-point performance in a 95-90 OT victory at Providence Wednesday night. And Howard got his. He poured in a game-high 37 and led the late, ultimately unsuccessful Marquette scare.
“Markus just got it going,” Wright said of Howard, who went 13 of 27 from the field, including 5 for 13 from downtown, and 6 for 6 from the line. “It was almost just like the Providence game. Once he got it going, there’s just not much you can do. When you trap him, the other guys are good enough that they can make plays. You play him one-on-one and he jumps into you and creates contact and gets fouls. … We tried to take away his threes, but we gave up traditional threes.”
But, still, that wasn’t enough to topple the mighty Wildcats, who have now not lost two straight games since March 2013. The last time the ‘Cats lost two straight was when they dropped a 74-55 decision to Louisville in the second round of the Big East tournament and then absorbed a 78-71 defeat at the hands of North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament a week later. That was so long ago that Louisville as a Big East member is like ancient history.
“I never think about that and then every time it happens and someone says it to me, I think that’s really cool,” Wright said of his program’s incredible streak. “I like that. I like it a lot. I think it says a lot about our guys. I think it says a lot about the character of our guys.
“Every time you guys say it, I think, wow, that’s really cool. I like to say I take pride in it. But I don’t think about it. When you say it, I’m proud of it. But I’ll forget about it tomorrow.”
“I think the most important thing I’ve learned here is that win or lose a game, we’re coming back the next day to get better,” Brunson said. “Obviously, if we lose a game it’s going to refocus us a little bit. But we want to get better every time we step on the court.”
And the next time they step on the court, all the baby blue Villanova eyes turn to the game of the season this coming Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center when No. 5 Xavier comes to town for a titanic nationally televised showdown.
The Musketeers will likely not be as high as No. 5 after an 81-72 loss at Providence earlier Saturday. But still, Big East supremacy and bragging rights are on the line.
To the victor goes the jump-start to the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney. To the loser goes perhaps a season-long game of catch-up, as Wojciechowski said, is not the ideal place to be.