If there was a way that Villanova was going to break out of its shooting slump, it was to try to get to the basket more and share the ball more than it had in its last two games – both losses by 20 or more points.
And that’s just what the 23rd-ranked Wildcats did Tuesday night against No. 18 Xavier, driving into the paint time and again and putting the defense a little off-balance. It was that style that helped the Cats break open a close game and defeat the Musketeers, 71-58, in a Big East contest at Finneran Pavilion.
Justin Moore led the way for the Wildcats (8-4, 1-1 Big East) with 17 points, Caleb Daniels added 16, and Collin Gillespie and Eric Dixon 15 points apiece. Villanova scored 40 points in the paint, taking 34 two-point shots (making 21) and 21 threes (making six).
Moore, who was 3 of 10 in Friday night’s 79-59 loss to Creighton and just 2 of 8 in Tuesday night’s first half, came on with 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting in the second half.
“What was really impressive was, he had several good looks in the first half, shots he normally makes, and they just didn’t go in,” coach Jay Wright said. “It never changed his defensive intensity or his rebounding, and he stayed confident offensively. That’s the sign of a mature, confident player.”
The defense also had to take a bow, especially in the second half when the Wildcats limited Xavier (11-2, 1-1) to 32% shooting and an 0-for-14 nightmare on three-pointers.
The Musketeers’ Nate Johnson, the top three-point shooter in the Big East at 47.3%, made his first three shots from beyond the arc and missed his final nine, eight of them in the second half.
Xavier scored back-to-back baskets by Jerome Hunter and Dwon Odom to draw to within two points, 57-55, with 4 minutes, 4 seconds remaining, but the Wildcats scored the next eight points and held the Musketeers scoreless for the next 3:08 to claim the victory.
Villanova shot 53.8% in the second half and 49.1% for the game.
Doing it with defense
Villanova had one of its worst defensive showings of the season Friday night at Creighton, and did not exactly play inspired basketball at that end of the court in the first half against Xavier, allowing 52% shooting by the visitors.
But the defense roared out of the locker room in the second half with a steal by Gillespie and two by Brandon Slater on Xavier’s first three possessions. The count was five turnovers on nine possessions and then seven of 12. Villanova scored six points off the turnovers and regained the lead, 42-41, on Dixon’s layup with 14:02 left.
The Wildcats also cooled off the Musketeers’ shooting. When three-point baskets by Daniels and Gillespie capped an 8-0 run to give ‘Nova a 57-51 lead with 4:44 left to play, Xavier was 5 of 17 from the floor and had missed all nine of its three-point tries. The visitors scored just 20 points in the final 20 minutes.
“That second half was one our best halves defensively so far this year and I think Caleb Daniels had a big deal to do with that,” Wright said. “He did a great job when they were throwing lobs into the post. He was coming from the weak side, he was really active. He did a great job on the ball, and so did Eric.
“Their big guys are good and Eric Dixon did a really good job on the pick and roll. It was a really good team effort but I think those two in particular stood out.”
Shooting comes around
The Wildcats entered the game in a two-game shooting slump, making just 28.2% of their overall field-goal attempts and 20% (10 of 50) from three-point territory. The two-point shooting was a little better in the first half Tuesday night, but the deep shots just weren’t finding the range.
The Cats finished the period at 44.8% (13 of 29) but converted just 1 of 10 from three. Justin Moore hit the team’s second three-point try but they were 0-for-8 from that point. It looked even worse when the Musketeers knocked down their first six from deep.
But Villanova broke out of its three-point fog in the second half, scoring their first three baskets of the period on threes. That opened up the lane for drives to the hoop. The Cats scored 16 points in the paint in the second half, with three layups, two by Moore, sealing the win.
Wright said attacking the rim “was a point of emphasis.”
“We missed a lot of opportunities against Creighton doing that,” he said, “and we looked at film and we saw that we did miss those opportunities. Eric Dixon was great and I thought Justin was tough in there, too, and so was Jermaine [Samuels].”