It didn’t matter that Xavier entered the game having reeled off nine wins in a row. Or that Villanova was down a starter and had three others mired in foul trouble.
Even under favorable circumstances, the Musketeers still can’t beat the Wildcats.
Mikal Bridges scored 25 points and Donte DiVicenzo added 21 as Villanova defeated Xavier for the 10th time in 11 meetings as Big East rivals. The Wildcats stormed to an 18-point first-half lead, withstood a furious rally by the Musketeers to trim the deficit to three and then pulled away once more to finish off a 95-79 road victory.
That the outcome was one-sided should have been no surprise even though Villanova and Xavier are both top-five teams in the latest AP poll and 1-2 in the Big East standings. The average margin of victory in the Wildcats’ 10 Big East wins over the Musketeers has been 18.4 points. Only one of those 10 Villanova victories came by single digits.
Villanova’s latest win had major implications both in the Big East title picture and the race for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
Had Xavier (24-4, 12-3) held serve at home, the Musketeers would have taken a two-game lead in the Big East and taken a giant step toward ending Villanova’s four-year streak of outright league titles. The Wildcats (24-3, 11-3) instead moved back into a tie in the loss column in the Big East standings with two weeks left in conference play.
The one silver lining for Xavier is that the remaining schedules favor the Musketeers. They get DePaul and Georgetown on the road and Providence at home, while Villanova still has road games against Creighton and Seton Hall left in addition to home games against the Hoyas and Blue Demons.
Big East title implications aside, Villanova needed a win Saturday more than Xavier did because the Wildcats entered in the midst of a modest slump. They had dropped two of their last three games, sandwiching losses to St. John’s and Providence around a victory over Butler.
The biggest concern for Villanova was that they weren’t defending or rebounding to the level that previous Wildcats teams have. Villanova’s lethal offense has been able to make up for those issues most of the season, but the Wildcats entered Saturday’s game misfiring from behind the arc in their previous three games.
Villanova’s lack of rim protection and inability to stay in front of Xavier’s guards off the bounce were issues again Saturday, but the Wildcats atoned for that with a 3-point shooting barrage. Bridges sank four threes in the first half and DiVincenzo knocked down five in the game as the Wildcats shot 16 of 34 from behind the arc. They spaced the floor expertly, shared the ball consistently and got double figures from all five starters and freshman Collin Gillespie off the bench.
That Villanova won on the road with starting guard Phil Booth sidelined with a broken hand was impressive. That the Wildcats won with Bridges and forwards Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall each in game-long foul trouble was even more remarkable.
No matter the circumstances, Villanova just seems to have Xavier’s number.
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