Second half surge ignites win against Villanova

Villanova has been an Achilles’ heel for Xavier since the Musketeers joined the Big East. In its six years as a member of the conference, Xavier had only beaten Villanova once –– dating back to the 2016 tilt at home when the Wildcats ranked No. 1 in the country –– before Sunday afternoon’s late-season contest at Cintas Center.

Surrounded by the electric atmosphere of a capacity crowd, Xavier played a relentless second half to hand No. 17 Villanova its third consecutive road loss while improving to 15-13 overall on the season with a confidence-boosting 66-54 victory. The win vaulted Xavier into a tie for fourth place in the Big East.

“I think there’s a trust amongst our group that wasn’t obviously there earlier on in the year,” head coach Travis Steele said about the team’s effort against Villanova. “That trust factor is there, and I think going through the adversity we’ve gone through has helped our group become tighter.”

Xavier had a stellar defensive effort, holding the normally juggernaut Villanova offense to shooting just 34 percent overall and 28 percent from distance.

“Everything started with our defense,” junior point guard Quentin Goodin, who scored 11 points and dished out four assists, said. “We needed to get more kills there throughout the game, and it really helped us go toward our offense.”

The last time Villanova visited Cintas Center, the Wildcats hit a then-record 16 three-pointers against the Musketeers. Four of the first eight shots made by Villanova were on three-point field goals, and the Wildcats converted 10 shots from beyond the arc throughout the game.

Sophomore guard Paul Scruggs scored 14 points, complimented by six rebounds and two assists. As a team, the Musketeers had three other players score in double figures. Sophomore forward Naji Marshall was the team’s top scorer with 17 points.

Xavier struggled to put the ball in the basket during the early minutes of the first half. By the 7:54 mark in the first half, the Musketeers trailed 18-11. The Musketeers, however, recouped their scoring woes, ending the first half with a field goal percentage of 48 percent.

Xavier had difficulty corralling defensive rebounds as Villanova grabbed seven offensive boards in the first half alone –– mostly on fortunate long rebounds. The Musketeers went into the break down 30-27.

Sophomore guard Elias Harden has been seeing extended time throughout the Musketeers’ last few games, and while he hasn’t totaled many points, he has played a pivotal role on the defensive end of the floor.

Against Villanova, Harden accounted for all eight of the Musketeers’ bench points in 26 minutes of on-court action. Harden’s three-pointer with 11:49 in the second half knotted the game at 44 points apiece, which ignited a jolt in the offense.

“Elias has gotten a lot better,” Steele said. “He was tremendous defensively … I thought he made a big impact on game on the defensive end with his energy but also his discipline.”

The Musketeers capitalized on a 2:26 scoring drought by Villanova to seize a 46-44 advantage with 10:20 left to go in the game. It marked the first time Xavier led during the game.

From there, the Musketeers went on a 20-2 run fueled by an onslaught of offense. The run extended Xavier’s lead to double digits and eventually to a game-high 15 points with 2:22 remaining.

Xavier also pitched a stalwart defensive effort, holding the Wildcats to a mere 24 points in the second half. Steele commended junior forward Tyrique Jones for his ability to switch on defense and guard the perimeter.

“I thought he was a big reason we were able to go on that run defensively because he was able to switch one through five,” Steele said.

Xavier has entered a positive stretch late in the season when it matters most. The Musketeers are on the precipice of reaching the upper echelon of the Big East –– a position they’ve been on the outside looking in for a majority of conference play.

The type of play, specifically defensive, Xavier manufactured against a perennial NCAA Tournament team will pay large dividends for carrying momentum into the final three games of the regular season and beyond.

By: Luke Feliciano | Sports Editor