How formidable did the defenses of Villanova and Butler appear to be early on Tuesday night in their Big East heavyweight matchup at Finneran Pavilion? Each team went on a 1-for-11 spell in the opening 10 minutes.
But before the game could become a first-team-to-50-wins kind of deal, the ninth-ranked Wildcats capitalized on balanced scoring to gain a 17-point second-half lead, repelled a rally by the No. 13 Bulldogs, and picked up a 76-61 victory, their 11th win in their last 12 games.
The Cats (15-3, 5-1 Big East) placed five players in double figures, led by Jermaine Samuels’ 20 points. But they also had to play some defense against Butler (15-4, 3-3), and that came from Saddiq Bey, who was the primary defender on all-conference guard Kamar Baldwin.
Baldwin recovered from a 2-for-9 first half to score 21 points but had to work for every basket. After Villanova extended a 10-point halftime margin to 17, 43-26, thanks to Bey’s three-point basket and four-point play in the opening 50 seconds of the second half, Baldwin sparked a 19-6 Butler comeback that closed the gap to four, 49-45, with 11:16 remaining.
But Bey, with help from his teammates, tightened the defense on Baldwin, who didn’t score again until two free throws at the 4:41 mark. Before the free throws, Villanova put together an 11-2 run keyed by four points from Samuels and a three-point basket by Justin Moore to take a 60-47 lead with just under 5 minutes to play.
The Bulldogs never got closer than 11 from that point and lost their third straight game.
Bey, Moore, and Collin Gillespie added 14 points for the Wildcats, with Gillespie contributing seven assists. Freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 12 points and 14 rebounds. One of the nation’s best free-throw shooting teams at 77.9%, the Cats finished the night 21-for-23 from the line.
For Butler, Sean McDermott, one of the Big East’s best three-point shooters at 42.2%, went 0-for-7 from deep and 1-for-11 overall for two points.
The defenses were strong in the opening stages of the game. The Wildcats began the contest making one of their first 11 shots, but went on a 10-0 run from that point as the Bulldogs went on a 1-for-11 slump of their own. Villanova held the lead for the final 11:36 of the period, and ended the half with a 9-2 run for a 36-26 lead.
The Wildcats also held a 43-37 rebounding advantage against a team that led the Big East in rebound margin at plus-6.6 per game.
Villanova coach Jay Wright on the importance of balanced scoring: “That’s really going to be the strength of our team, having multiple guys that can score and have balance. We’ve needed that. We haven’t been great at it. We’ve had some balance but we haven’t consistently been having balance. That’s how we have to play.”
Wright on Bey’s defense on Baldwin: “Saddiq’s really become our best defensive player. We try to pick the guy that we think is hurting us the most, or is going to hurt us the most in Baldwin, especially in that second half when he got it going a little bit. We wanted to make sure we kept Saddiq on him. He did a really good job tonight.”
Robinson-Earl continued to be a rock for Villanova, posting his sixth double-double of the season and doing whatever was necessary to assist in the victory, whether it was help defense or contesting shots at the rim, or being a facilitator on offense.
Gillespie had a 4-for-15 night from the field, missing his first eight shots, but he contributed in other areas, as he often does when he’s not scoring. He had seven assists against one turnover, went 5-for-5 from the free-throw line, and recorded a plus-24 rating, best on the team.