MILWAUKEE – On many nights during the previous decade, Villanova might have had a defensive slip-up or two but usually managed to win games by knocking down shots from the three-point line and creating fouls from drives to the hoop.
But the Wildcats of the new decade, with no scholarship seniors and a rotation that includes three freshmen and three sophomores, are struggling with their play on both ends of the court, and it cost them dearly on Saturday before a sellout crowd of 17,856 at Fiserv Forum.
Striving to come back from a 20-point deficit, the 10th-ranked Cats (10-3, 1-1 Big East) got their defense together somewhat in the second half against Marquette (11-3, 1-1) but had little going on offense and dropped a 71-60 decision to the Golden Eagles.
During one stretch of more than 11 minutes, the Golden Eagles missed 15 of 16 shots from the floor after taking a 49-29 lead. The Wildcats went on a 14-2 run and did cut the deficit to eight, 51-43, with 7 minutes, 59 seconds remaining, but made only 7 of 22 attempts during that same stretch, or not good enough.
When Markus Howard knocked down a three-point basket to get the lead to 11, the Cats never got the deficit into single digits until 19 seconds remained.
The Wildcats shot 35.3% for the game and 23.7% (9 of 38) from three. In their last five games, they are hitting just 26.3% of their attempts from three-point distance with four games of less than 30%.
Cole Swider was hot early, hitting all four of his threes in the first half, but missed all four from deep in the second half. He and Justin Moore led the Cats with 14 points.
Howard, the Big East’s leading scorer, got his points as usual – 29 in all – but did it in spurts, scoring 17 of his team’s first 27, and nine of its last 20 before fouling out with 37.8 seconds to play. He shot just 2 of 12 in the second half. Teammate Koby McEwen, a transfer from Utah State, provided ample help with 22 points.
Another area of concern for the Wildcats is drawing fouls. They were outscored, 26-3, from the line, getting just five shots.
“We were really inept, turnovers, shots that were taken,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. “When we made that run defensively, we had a lot of young guys in there, but we were getting stops. But our offensive decisions were really poor. We got caught up with being down and not making the right play, and that’s just something we have to learn.”
“We knew in order to win the game we were going to have to be able to sustain a lead to match their runs, and the way you do that is through defense,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “I thought our guys played an outstanding defensive game against one of the top offenses in the United States.”
Freshman Bryan Antoine saw his most action as a Wildcat, playing 20 minutes, 42 seconds and impressing Wright with his intensity at the defensive end. Antoine, who underwent shoulder surgery in May and did not return to practice until the end of November, scored two points on free throws but is still rusty with his stroke. He missed all six of his shots, including four from beyond the arc. He had one rebound and one steal.
Marquette was disappointed over its 92-75 loss to Creighton in its previous game and came out hot, pushing Villanova back on its heels from the outset. But there’s something about the Wildcats that gets them going, especially here. When asked what he thought of the “improvement” in the Golden Eagles defense, Wright responded, “People play us a little different, they come with good energy. I’ve really never seen them not to be a good defensive team.”