Villanova starts slow but secures win

Posted: February 28, 2014

VILLANOVA BEGAN playing basketball in 1920. Before last night the Wildcats had won 25 regular-season games four times. The first was in 1937-38, the season before the inaugural NCAA Tournament. The most recent, and only one in the last six-plus decades, happened 5 years ago, from a team that would get to a Final Four.

That was also the only one not coached by Al Severance.

Now, a group that began the season unranked after being picked to finish fourth in the Big East has added their names to that list by beating Butler last night at the Pavilion, 67-48.

They'll have three more chances, starting Sunday against preseason favorite Marquette (16-11, 8-6) in South Philly, to stand by themselves. Only one - next Thursday at Xavier (19-9, 9-6) - is on the road. They close with a Georgetown (16-11, 7-8) team that has disappointed, also at the Wells Fargo Center.

One more win also will tie the program high for Big East victories, with 14, which they accomplished in 1995-96 and 2005-06.

"I didn't know [about the record]," coach Jay Wright admitted. "It's very cool. It's a good group to coach. I've been telling you that all year. It's a pleasure. They really do like each other, and they root for each other. But we can't [stop]. At this point we have to keep pushing ourselves to get better. And we can.

"I know it wasn't pretty. But our coaching staff liked it. They're the kind of team that's not going to let you look pretty. So you've got to find a way to grind against them. I'll take it."

The nation's No. 8 club, playing for the last time on the Main Line, won for the ninth time in its last 10 games. On New Year's Eve, in a Big East opener, the Wildcats (25-3, 13-2) had needed overtime to outlast the Bulldogs (12-16, 2-14) in Indianapolis.

That was then. Butler, in its first season without new Celtics coach Brad Stevens, has lost seven straight and nine of 10. It also has played without Roosevelt Jones, who figured to be one of their best players if he hadn't injured his wrist last summer.

Still, things got off to a sluggish start. It was 5-4 after 6 minutes. At one point the Wildcats were 4-for-21 from the field, 1-for-9 from the arc. Yet they led anyway. Then they made five in a row, and by intermission it was 34-20 even with a banked three by the visitors' Kellen Dunham at the buzzer.

Both teams scored eight points in the first 8 minutes of the second half. Then the Wildcats went on a 13-3 run and it was over.

They clinched no worse than the second seed in next month's conference tournament in New York. They're even with Creighton in the loss column, but the Bluejays, of course, hold the tiebreaker because of their two blowout victories in the head-to-head.

Senior James Bell, the leader, needed 17 points to reach 1,000 for his career. He's still six short. But he probably will be OK with the result. He and Darrun Hilliard, who also had 11, were the only guys to hit double-digits. And Bell did have a team-best three assists and seven rebounds. And 10 players scored, including Patrick Farrell from way down the bench. It was that kind of evening.

"It was tough," is how Bell - who's from Orlando, Fla. - described his Senior Night experience. "I don't see my mom that much. I saw her crying. But after that it was time to go."

Bell battled injuries his first two seasons. As a sophomore they lost 19 times, which tied another program record.

"It's interesting, to be on both sides," he said. "And now, as a senior, to see it go the right way. It's something I never really gave much thought. But it's fun when you're playing. I have to be the most positive. If I don't, it affects the way the team plays."

The Wildcats went only 7-for-29 from three and 14-for-23 at the foul line. Didn't matter. It might, against any of the next three obstacles. But you play what the schedule tells you. They did only commit seven turnovers, and held Butler to a season-low in points on 30 percent shooting. So there is that, although it was kind of strange to see point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who's starting to find his shot, go without an assist or a turnover in 26 minutes. Oh well.

Butler got 12 points from Dunham, who went 3-for-13, and 10 from Khyle Marshall. Elijah Brown, who had a season-best 19 in the first meeting, finished with eight on as many shots.

Villanova, not shockingly, got 15 more points off turnovers and 17 more from its reserves.

Wright's emotions, as they always do, got the best of him in the Senior Night pregame.

"But I love it," he said.

And the ride isn't over. Maybe not even close.

"As a freshman, I look at the things [Bell] does," said freshman Josh Hart, who had eight points and eight boards. "No matter what, he keeps his head up. Coach is on him constantly, but he always has a good attitude.

"When I'm a senior, I want to be like him."

All in due time.

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