by Aaron Lynn
The Musketeers saw their perfect Big East home record fall at the hands of a scrappy Villanova team from the Cintas Center in Cincinnati, OH on Tuesday. Xavier entered the game ranked #16 with a 20-7 record overall and their 12-4 conference record meant they were right in the mix for a Big East regular season title alongside Marquette, Providence, and Creighton. Villanova, meanwhile, has had an unusually mediocre year and entered the contest 13-14. However, that record didn’t stop the Wildcats from pulling off their best win of the season.
The Musketeers started quickly, connecting on 6 of their first 10 shots from the field. Souley Boum knocked down one of his patented step-back threes and Xavier was completely dominating the glass early. Desmond Claude returned to the lineup after missing the previous two games with illness and buried his second three of the game and Villanova found themselves down 23-12 after enduring a scoreless stretch of over three minutes.
The Wildcats eventually found their footing and made four field goals in a row, cutting the lead to six and forcing a Xavier timeout. Villanova guard Justin Moore was heating up and had 11 first half points with four minutes still to play in the period. Moore is a veteran who recently returned to the Wildcat lineup after a 10-month recovery from a torn achilles. He missed the first matchup between Xavier and Villanova which ended in an 88-80 victory for the Musketeers and his impact was clearly felt on Tuesday. First year Villanova head coach Kyle Neptune said after the game that Moore is “not only our best player, but the leader, and the smartest guy [on the floor].”
Villanova missed Justin Moore in the first matchup and Xavier missed Zach Freemantle in the second matchup. Freemantle dropped 29 against Nova in early January and is the second-leading scorer on the team (15.3) and was averaging 8.0 rebounds before an injury sidelined the senior in late January. Xavier is hopeful to get their 6’9” forward back before the postseason push of March.
Souley Boom drained a half court shot at the buzzer, and Xavier went to the locker room up 36-30. Villanova was 1-11 when allowing 70 points or more, and the Musketeers were on pace for 72 points at the break. FOX broadcaster Tim Brando recently described the Cintas Center as a “house of horrors” for opposing teams and the Wildcats were now headed in the direction of a loud and boisterous student section. Despite a strong first half and being down just six, the odds seemed stacked against Villanova.
Xavier got the first two shots of the half to fall and Villanova quickly called a timeout, finding themselves down double digits. The timeout was timely and Neptune drew up some open looks for his team who responded with a 6-0 run. Xavier struggled with turnovers from that point on, surrendering 10 in the half with many of them unforced according to head coach Sean Miller, who is in his first year of his second stint with the Musketeers. Villanova continued their run, eventually tying the game at 48-48. Justin Moore continued his strong play, getting tough layups to fall on one end and disrupting passing lanes for steals on the other.
With just 11.8 seconds to play, Xavier had the ball trailing 64-63. Unsurprisingly, the Musketeers got the ball into the hands of their best player Boum. With a head of steam, Boum drove the lane, looking for contact and a chance to win the game from the free throw line. He didn’t find it and in desperation flipped the ball over his head for a shot that didn’t have much of a chance. The rebound was tipped out all the way to the corner and by the time either team gained possession of the basketball, the clock hit zeros and Villanova had completed an impressive upset as the sold-out crowd sat in stunned silence.
Kyle Neptune wouldn’t admit that the win over Xavier was the best of the season (even though it was), stating that his team is simply concerned with improving. He did praise his team’s defensive effort, “We got stops when we needed to, I thought our toughness was unbelievable.” Xavier entered the contest averaging 82.6 points per game and the Wildcats held them to a season-low 63 points. Sean Miller acknowledged Villanova’s strong play but pointed out his team’s self-inflicted mistakes, “We had a hard time getting the ball to Jack [Nunge] and then we had a hard time converting. We have to do a better job.”
What does the win mean for Villanova? The Wildcats will still need to run the table in the Big East tournament in order to reach the “big dance,” but the win could prove critical in building momentum for the 38-year-old Neptune and his program heading into next season. If you are a team in the Big East tournament, you don’t want to face this much-healthier Villanova squad.
What does the loss mean for Xavier? Considering the results of other games in the Big East over the last couple of nights, Xavier's defeat all but knocks them out of contention to win a Big East regular season title. Marquette held off Creighton and UConn downed Providence which means that Marquette has a two game lead in the standings with just three games to play. For additional details, check out Xavier’s current tournament resume.
Xavier heads on the raod to face Seton Hall (Feb 24) and Providence (Mar 1) before finishing the season at home against Butler (Mar 4). The Big East Tournament will take place from Madison Square Garden from March 8-11, check back once the tournament field is confirmed for a tournament schedule, bracket, and additional coverage!