After three straight losses, the No. 15 Villanova Wildcats finally corrected course, defeating No. 18 Marquette, 72-71, Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
In a Big East season that has seen nearly every team, Nova's troubles weren't out of the ordinary, but they were concerning. Losses to Creighton, No. 19 Butler and No. 12 Seton Hall dropped the Wildcats into a three-way tie for second place with the Bluejays and Golden Eagles entering Wednesday.
That made Villanova's victory over Marquette even more important as it creates a sliver of breathing room near the top of the Big East standings. After Seton Hall fell to Creighton earlier in the night, the Wildcats are now two games back and in prime position to make a move for the conference lead.
On the night Wildcats legend Ryan Arcidiacono had his jersey retired by his alma mater, Villanova took care of business against a Marquette team that had won three straight games with star guard Markus Howard (27.4 points per game) continuing to fill up the stat sheet.
Howard made more history on Wednesday, nailing a buzzer-beating three to set a new Big East career scoring record with 1,408 points to pass Lawrence Moten.
- Markus Howard, G, Golden Eagles: 24 points, five rebounds, two assists
- Koby McEwen, Gm, Golden Eagles: 12 points, 11 rebounds five assists
- Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, F, Wildcats: 17 points, 11 rebounds, four assists
- Saddiq Bey, F, Wildcats: 10 points, two rebounds
- Jermaine Samuels, F, Wildcats: 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists
Balanced Offense Leads Nova
Villanova head coach Jay Wright wasn't too concerned about his team amid a three-game losing streak. They're young, after all, and when you're a young team, it's hard to get out of your own way. Still, even the coach was pleased with how well his players shared the ball on offense as they finally broke out on Wednesday.
"When you're an experienced team, winning and losing doesn't impact you as much," Wright said on Fox Sports after the game. "You understand it's about effort and execution. But when you're a young team, losing gets in their minds. It shouldn't, but it does. We're gonna feel good about this win, but we have a lot of mistakes to correct still."
Of course, it's easier to correct mistakes after a victory, and it should be even easier still given how well the offense played.
Four Wildcats scored in double figures. Another two fell one basket short. And that's while the team combined for 14 total assists. During its three-game losing streak, Nova didn't have one game in which more than three players reached double-digits.
It's that extra bit of scoring that makes the Wildcats such a dangerous threat to make a run in March. They routinely use three versatile bigs who can score and pass, making defending without switching as tough as it gets in college basketball.
Leading the way Wednesday was freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who led the team in points, rebounds and assists—and, perhaps best of all, earned Wright's praise after the game. Moments later in his own press conference, the freshman echoed his coach's words about staying focused.
"Attitude is so important for us," Robinson-Earl said. "We can't let the little things get in our head."
A big victory over a surging Marquette team is all the Wildcats needed to prove that notion correct.
Howard Heats up Late in Failed comeback
Perhaps the most discouraging part of Marquette's performance on Wednesday was how well the team had been providing offense outside of Howard, only for Howard to cool off when it needed him most.
After scoring 11 points in the first half, the senior guard couldn't get anything to fall in the second frame. It wasn't until five minutes left in regulation that he hit his first field goal of the half. By then, the Golden Eagles were working on coming back from an 18-point deficit. That bucket at least provided the spark needed to fight until the final buzzer.
MU cut the lead to six points with 4:30 remaining, and the win was back up for grabs.
"He's so dynamic," Wright said. "He does such a good job of creating contact. Competing against him for four years, as good a player as he is, he's a classier kid."
Howard scored eight straight points down the stretch and had a chance to make it a one-point game at the line with five seconds left. Except he missed the first free throw. And then he missed the second about as poorly as he could.
While trying to get the ball to bounce off the rim so he could grab his own rebound for a final possession, Howard instead missed the hoop and turned the ball over to Villanova. Robinson-Earl's free throws moments later ended the comeback bid for good.
A frustrated Howard heaved a final three at the buzzer, which at least gave him the all-time Big East scoring record.
The Wildcats' schedule finally calms down a bit with a Sunday game against Temple followed by a road trip to DePaul on Wednesday and Xavier on Saturday. Marquette's run through the gauntlet is still ongoing, however. The Golden Eagles return home to host No. 23 Creighton to cap off a run of three straight games against ranked opponents.