NEW YORK – Defending national champion Villanova will look to move one step closer to playing for its third consecutive Big East tournament championship when it battles Xavier in a semifinal Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
The No. 25-ranked and top-seeded Wildcats improved to 23-9 with a 73-62 victory over eighth-seeded Providence on Thursday. It is the fifth straight season Villanova has won in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
Eric Paschall led the way with 20 points and 10 rebounds, Collin Gillespie added 19 points and Phil Booth had 13 in the win.
“I think we beat a good team,” Villanova coach Jay Wright told reporters after the game. “(Xavier has) played well over the last five or six games. It wasn’t pretty, but I’m proud of our guys.”
Villanova received a major boost from forward Cole Swider, who was injured for a large chunk of the season. Swider contributed five points in 15 minutes.
“Cole missed six weeks and he really hasn’t played much in a game since he got hurt,” Wright told reporters. “I thought he did a great job for not having played in a game in seven or eight weeks.”
Paschall and Gillespie each set career highs for points in a Big East tournament game and the Wildcats improved to 12-2 in the event since 2013-14. One more win will put them in position to contend for a tournament championship again.
“Our whole team has had a great attitude,” Paschall told reporters. “And we’re taking a step in the right direction.”
Fourth-seeded Xavier, meanwhile, improved to 18-14 with an exciting 63-61 victory over fifth-seeded Creighton, which had won five in a row.
Zach Hankins paced the Musketeers with 22 points, including a late offensive rebound and basket to help secure a spot in the semifinals. Kyle Castlin then blocked a potential game-winning shot by Ty-Shon Alexander to preserve the victory.
Hankins scored 12 of his 22 points in the final 7:11.
“It sunk in some on the court when they grabbed me for an interview on the court,” Hankins told reporters. “I almost teared up some. I’ve got to take it all in and realize where I come from and what I just did.”
“He was wide open,” Castlin, who transferred to Xavier from Columbia, told reporters of Alexander on the final shot. “I knew I just had to put it all on the line and try to seal the game.”
Xavier and Villanova split a pair of games this season as each team won at home. But the spotlight of the Big East tournament will be much greater.
“We’ve just got to play as hard as we possibly can, leave it all out there, no regrets mentality and be the attacking team,” Xavier head coach Travis Steele told reporters.
The Musketeers will also need another strong game from leading scorer Naji Marshall, who started and had 11 points and eight rebounds after missing the regular-season finale with a sore ankle. Marshall scored just one point in the second half, however.
–Field Level Media