It wasn't always pretty, but Villanova was able to eventually put away No. 15 seed Milwaukee to set up a Big East reunion with Connecticut.
The Wildcats shot 45.2 percent from the field and hit just four of their 23 attempts from beyond the arc, but Jay Wright's squad got enough points in the paint and played enough defense to advance to the round of 32 with a 73-53 victory.
Darrun Hilliard led a balanced attack with 16 points, as five players scored in double figures.
'Nova now meets the Huskies, their former Big East league-mates who knocked off Saint Joseph's, 89-81, in overtime earlier on Thursday.
Old rivalries will be renewed on Saturday in Buffalo when Villanova faces UConn. Terrific matchup between two old Big East rivals.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 21, 2014
The Wildcats were able to hold Milwaukee to 28.6 percent shooting and get into transition off eight steals and 10 blocks, but that may not be quite as easy against Shabazz Napier and co., who put together an impressive offensive display.
CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello likes the Huskies to pull off the No. 7-over-No. 2 upset:
Right now, I'm kinda glad I picked UConn over Villanova in the Round of 32.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 21, 2014
Still, a win is a win, and the Wildcats, who will be looking to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009, appeared to get rid of some jitters after a dreadful first half.
In the opening 20 minutes, both teams combined to hit 19 of 66 shots (28.8 percent) in the first half. Milwaukee leading scorer Jordan Aaron was 0-of-7 from the field, while Villanova responded by missing on all of 12 of its attempts from beyond the arc.
As CSN's Reuben Frank noted, it was a continuation of what plagued 'Nova during its Big East tournament loss to Seton Hall:
VIllanova closes first half on a 9-0 run and leads 27-23. Wildcats are 0-for-12 from three and 4-for-31 from three in postseason.— Reuben Frank (@RoobCSN) March 21, 2014
After ending the half on a 9-0 run to take the 27-23 lead at halftime, though, both teams once again came out slow out of the locker room.
Aaron didn't hit a shot from the field until there was 7:49 remaining, and he finished with a forgettable six points on 15 field-goal attempts. Villanova's first three-pointer, meanwhile, didn't come until the 12:01 mark when Kris Jenkins buried one. As ESPN's Brett Edgerton noted, it was a historically bad shooting night:
Via @ESPNStatsInfo: Nova 2-of-20 from 3. Only 2 winning teams in last 5 NCAA tourneys have had a worse 3-pt pct in a game (both were KU).— Brett Edgerton (@EditorEdge) March 21, 2014
Nevertheless, Villanova found other ways to score.
James Bell turned a couple of steals in transition points, the 'Cats worked the ball inside to JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu, and another trey from Jenkins extended the lead to 68-51 with just over three minutes remaining.
Give credit to the Horizon League champs for sticking around, but outside of Austin Arians, who had 17 points, they couldn't make enough baskets to ever really challenge Villanova, even though the deficit remained in single digits for much of the night.
As for the Wildcats, who tackle UConn—perhaps literally in the old-school Big East matchup—on Saturday for a trip to Madison Square Garden, they can't afford many more shooting nights like this.
If they do, it will another disappointing early exit for Wright and his staff.