By MIKE ANGELINA
Villanova came out Saturday afternoon and told the country through its play that they simply love playing basketball and playing as a team. The Wildcats capped their most successful season in program history with their 28th victory against Georgetown, 77-59 at the Wells Fargo Center.
They had already clinched the Big East regular season championship title, and were assured of the conference tournament’s top seed for next week. They were coming off short turnaround time, having just flown back from Cincinnati Thursday night, where they defeated a tough Xavier team to clinch first place.
Waiting for them back home was a hungry Georgetown team on the bubble. According to bracket forecaster Joe Lunardi, the Hoyas were one of the first few teams on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament for an at-large bid.
It looked like a trap game for Villanova, with bigger things staring at them next week. Instead, it was an exclamation point on the best year on the Main Line.
“It confirmed everything I thought about these guys,” Head Coach Jay Wright declared. “They just love to play ball.”
With little at stake, Villanova came out playing like it was the same stage as the 1985 National Championship against their archrival. There was no motivational speech that needed to be given; they didn’t need a boost to get their energy back up after Thursday. The Wildcats made the most out of their final home game of the season before heading to the postseason in their dominant victory.
“I really don’t have to say anything,” Wright said. “They play.”
So when it came time to finally play—the game was delayed 12 minutes due to the St. John’s-Marquette game, Villanova turned it on. Two minutes into the game, they were ahead 9-2 and already picked three steals on the defensive end. They never looked back and dominated wire-to-wire, never trailing.
“[It was] a very good win for us, a really good performance, coming from Thursday night it showed the focus and maturity of these guys,” Wright explained. “It’s a pleasure to coach guys that love to play, back-to-back, tired, whatever, they just love to play ball.”
Hilliard has talked all season about how they will continue to fight and claw, and continue to come at teams. Even with the low stakes he set the tone by grabbing two of the three early steals, punctuated the jump-start with a slam dunk on the fast break before John Thompson III was forced to burn a timeout.
“I sound like a broken record, but they just play that way,” Wright said. “They play every possession. They keep grinding, it’s just ‘next play, next play, next play’.”
Finishing with 19 points, Hilliard led the Wildcats for the fifth consecutive game. He was joined by a compliment of other scorers, as Villanova had five players score double figures.
“They have several players on their team who would be the point person, the star on other teams,” Thompson said of Villanova. “They have different players who can step up. I think their unselfishness is a key.”
Villanova used their defense to get much of their offensive production. They forced 18 Hoya turnovers, double the amount they gave away. Hilliard, James Bell and Ryan Arcidiacono had three steals each, contributing to a total of 14 for the game. 22 of their 77 points were off turnovers.
The game also represented growth over a full season for Villanova. They received big contributions from two of their freshmen, Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart. Jenkins, who averaged three points per game finished with 10. Hart helped fuel the hot start by dropping six points in a span of four minutes off the bench. He provided his typical burst of energy on the boards and running the floor.
Bell said the freshmen have found success because of the environment around them. He noticed them picking up on his lead.
“They totally bought into it, and I think it’s just from seeing everyone else do it,” he said. “They’ve come, they added toughness, they know the game and they play for us. They just fit right in.”
The 28 wins established a new program record for Villanova. Though they were picked to finish fourth—two spots behind Georgetown—Wright had confidence in his team since their elimination in the 2013 NCAA tournament. He just did not think they would be this good.
“I don’t try to predict, ever what our record is going to be,” he said. “If someone forced me to, I would have never picked 28-3.”
Villanova will now get a chance to rest for a few days before travelling to New York for the Big East tournament. Having earned the number one seed, they will get a first-round bye and do not have a game until Thursday.
“We want to get fresh, and focus on the Big East tournament,” Wright said.
Wright, who gives all the credit to the players, said it will be easier to get ready by talking about coming off a big win and not trying to pick themselves up after a tough loss. The strong finish, he said, will make practice easier next week.
“I was really pleased that we finished strong,” he said. Anything could have happened today. This was really in the players’ hands, and it was really impressive to me.