The Villanova Wildcats opened up their Big East Tournament play in decisive fashion against seventh-seed Marquette, pulling away in the second half to a 94-70 final score.
Redshirt junior forward Mikal Bridges was the key for the Wildcats, scoring a team-leading 25 points and eight rebounds while adding four assists and a steal. Junior guard Jalen Brunson was also a big factor, dropping 21 points, including three of six from behind the arc, and three assists on the night.
“I think they showed they played last night,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “They were a little sharp with us early, but we hung in there. I think the leadership of Jalen [Brunson] and Mikal [Bridges] kept everybody together.”
The game started out slow, with both teams shooting fewer than 25 percent from the floor and combining for only 4-18 from 3-point range. No team lead by more than five points until 12 seconds before the end of the first half, when Villanova pulled ahead by seven on a Phil Booth layup.
It was all Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey for Marquette in the first half, combining for 30 of the Golden Eagles’ 34 points. They rained threes on Wildcats for as long as they could, going 4-6 and 3-8 from the arc respectively.
Marquette’s victory against DePaul on Wednesday began to show through during the second half, with Villanova outscoring them 53-34 and running the Golden Eagles’ legs out from under them. The Wildcats had a variety of contributors in the half in addition to Brunson and Bridges, including redshirt junior guard Phil Booth, who tacked on 13 points and two assists, and redshirt junior forward Eric Paschall, who scored nine and also grabbed two of his seven rebounds on the night.
“We just gave them too much space in the first half,” Wright said. “I thought our guys did a great job in the second half, they got a little worn down, and we were able to stay fresh.”
The Wildcats were able to neutralize Markus Howard in the second half, holding him to just seven points and 1-4 from 3-point range after he scored 16 on 4-6 in the first half. As a team, their 3-point field goal percentage dropped from 46.7 in the first to just 33.3 during the second half.
Villanova really began to pull away with 14 minutes left in the second half, when a long 3-pointer from Booth put the Wildcats up by 15. At the five-minute mark, redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman hit another three that pushed their lead to 24. The Golden Eagles’ were never able to get back under 20.
For the game, Villanova outplayed Marquette in almost every statistical category, shooting 15 percent more efficiently than the Golden Eagles while outrebounding them 37-26 and scoring 12 more points in the paint.
This makes the 36th straight year that the Big East Tournament was held in Madison Square Garden, which makes it the longest-tendered venue for any conference basketball tournament. Historically, the Wildcats play very well in New York and in the Garden.
“I think every game here means a lot to us,” Brunson said. “It’s great tradition, great history here in this arena. This tournament has a lot of great memories. It’s always a battle whenever you’re in a game here.”
On Friday night, Villanova will take on the Seton Hall Pirates, who were victorious over the Butler Bulldogs on Thursday, in the Big East semi-finals. According to Coach Wright, improving their defensive effort will be the key for the Wildcats.
“Defense and rebounding. It’s the same thing all year for us. We’re a good offensive team but you could see we went through some spurts there where we get it going offensively and then just relax defensively. We’ve just got to be more consistent.”