Big East showdown: No. 3 Villanova 95, No. 4 Xavier 79
By JOE KAY, AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) — With the Big East’s bragging rights at stake, Villanova showed it’s not ready to relinquish its reign.
Mikal Bridges led an early 3-point shooting spurt that put Villanova in control, and the third-ranked Wildcats beat No. 4 Xavier 95-79 on Saturday in a showdown for control of the league.
As it has nearly every time, this one went to ‘Nova.
The Wildcats (24-3, 11-3) have won all four regular-season titles since the league was reconfigured. Xavier (24-4, 12-3) had a chance to take control of the race, but simply wasn’t up to the Wildcats’ level in the biggest game of the season.
Now, Xavier’s lead is down to a half-game and Villanova has swept the head-to-head series.
“I think we wanted to send ourselves a message, not necessarily about the title race but about playing Villanova basketball,” said Dante DiVincenzo, who finished with 21 points. “We knew we weren’t playing Villanova basketball.”
Bridges scored 25 points in a balanced attack that got the best of a matchup between the league’s top offenses. Trevon Bluiett had 26 points for Xavier, which had its nine-game winning streak snapped. Villanova made a season-high 16 3-pointers, the most ever by a Xavier opponent.
“They hit a lot of tough 3s, but we’ve just got to play tougher,” said Xavier’s Naji Marshall, who had 11 points. “When you play elite teams, there’s little margin for error.”
The Wildcats ended their three-game shooting slump by making 11 3s in the first half, when they pulled out to a 19-point lead and silenced a raucous crowd at the Cintas Center, where Xavier had been undefeated this season.
“We came out together and played harder than we usually do,” Bridges said. “We’ve got to keep that up. We can’t settle. We can’t relax.”
Bluiett led a second-half surge that cut it to 64-61 with 11 minutes left before Bridges’ basket blunted the comeback. Xavier had a pair of turnovers, and DiVincenzo hit back-to-back 3s as the Wildcats rebuilt their lead to double digits and pulled away.
“When they shoot the ball the way they did today, it will take a monumental effort to beat them,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said.
In the end, it was like the last four games between the league’s heavyweights. Villanova has won 10 of 11 against Xavier in the Big East, the last four by margins of 25, 22, 24 and 16 points. Xavier hadn’t lost since an 89-65 defeat at Villanova on Jan. 10.
Villanova: The Wildcats rely on their 3-point shooting but had been in a slump the last three games, going 17 of 71 from beyond the arc. They had their worst game of the season during a 76-71 loss at Providence , going 3 of 20. Villanova went 11 of 19 from beyond the arc in the first half on Saturday. After missing their first seven 3-point tries in the second half, they found their mark and pulled away, finishing 16 of 34.
Xavier: The Musketeers came out overly aggressive — three fouls in the first 26 seconds — and missed eight of their first 12 shots, including several layups. They’ve had bad first halves in their last four games against the Wildcats, leading to the double-digit losses.
“We were excited playing ‘Nova in our gym,” Marshall said. “I think we came out a little too excited.”
It was the second-largest win by Villanova against a Top-5 team under coach Jay Wright, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Villanova’s Omari Spellman and Xavier’s Paul Scruggs got technical fouls for yelling at each other during the Musketeers’ comeback in the second half. The two had to be separated.
It was only the second time in the Cintas Center’s 18-year history that a pair of Top 5 teams faced off. The other time resulted in Xavier’s only win over Villanova in Big East play. The No. 5 Musketeers beat the No. 1 Wildcats 90-83 on Feb. 24, 2016.
Bluiett surpassed David West for second place on Xavier’s career scoring list with 2,140 points.
Villanova: Wildcats host DePaul on Wednesday, followed by games at Creighton and Seton Hall before finishing at home against Georgetown.
Xavier: Musketeers play at Georgetown on Wednesday. They beat the Hoyas in overtime 96-91 at the Cintas Center on Feb. 3. They finish at home against Providence — one of the teams that beat them — and at DePaul.
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