The sellout crowd at Finneran Pavilion felt it could collectively exhale. Villanova had taken a 10-point lead Wednesday night with 2 minutes left, Marquette hadn’t scored for the previous two minutes, and the end of the Wildcats’ three-game losing streak appeared to be assured.
But the Golden Eagles’ Markus Howard, the nation’s leading scorer, still had some shots to make, and the 15th-ranked Wildcats had to hang on for dear life until the buzzer sounded for a 72-71 victory over No. 18 Marquette (17-7, 7-5 Big East).
The Cats (18-6, 8-4), who led by as any as 18 early in the second half, used two free throws from Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and a three-point basket from Collin Gillespie to take a 70-60 lead with 2 minutes, 2 seconds to play. But Howard, who made just 4 of his first 15 shots, then went on his torrid run.
He hit a three-point basket , a driving layup, and another three to cut the gap to three, 71-68, with 40.8 seconds remaining. After Bey missed a shot, Howard was fouled with 5.6 seconds remaining. He missed the first free throw and, after a timeout, tried to shoot to create a rebound, but he did not hit the rim, giving ‘Nova the ball.
Robinson-Earl made one of two free throws with 4 seconds remaining, and Howard’s three-point try swished at the buzzer for the final margin.
Robinson-Earl had his eighth double-double of the season, 17 points and 11 rebounds, but struggled at the free-throw line. An 85.3% free-throw shooter entering the game, he went 5-of-9, including 2-of-5 in the final 1:04. Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels added 14 points each for ‘Nova.
Howard finished with 24 points to become the all-time leading scorer in Big East Conference games with 1,408 points, breaking the record of 1,405 held by Syracuse’s Lawrence Moten.
After a first half in which they led by 15 and shot 46.9% from the field, the Cats cooled off to 32.1% in the second half.
Jay Wright on guarding Howard: “We wanted to play him as a team without giving too much up on the other guys. [Sacar] Anim and [Koby] McEwen are really dynamic scorers also. We just wanted to guard him as a team. I thought [Robinson-Earl] did an amazing job early in ball screens helping and trapping him, keeping him in front of him. We did a decent job in the second half. Right at the end, I think we were afraid to foul him.”
Villanova honored Ryan Arcidiacono, a leader of its 2016 national championship season, by retiring his jersey in halftime ceremonies. “It’s awesome, just a special, special night,” he said. “I told myself I wasn’t going to get emotional, but I got a little emotional, because this university, the fans, having all my family and friends here … it means the world to me.”