By Lewis Gould
Let’s just say the Villanova Wildcats had extra incentive last night in Manhattan!
The defending national champion Cats topped Creighton, 74-60, to claim their second Big East title in three seasons.
The victory was redemption of sorts for the 2016 conference tournament, when Seton Hall shocked Villanova in the championship game, eking out a two-point upset victory.
This year, though, Josh Hart wouldn’t be denied.
The Wildcats’ senior leader scored a game-high 29 points, burying the Blue Jays in a blowout. He also grabbed six rebounds and dished out two assists. Hart was named MVP of the tournament for the second time in his illustrious college career.
“He was tournament MVP as a sophomore, and he’s better in every aspect of the game. He’s such a better player, which is amazing if you think about it,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said of Hart. “Going into this tournament, I think he put it all together. It was his leadership, it was his decision-making, his defense, his rebounding.
“He’s a complete basketball player. I think he’s the best, most complete player in the country.”
Sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson added 17 points and five assists in the victory. As a younger player, Brunson was determined to rectify last March’s loss to Seton Hall.
“Coach didn’t want our senior class to go out like that again. So we just bought in, the other guys bought into what Coach was saying,” he said. “We have a group of seniors who lead us but also want to get better every day. Just shows the type of character those guys have.”
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Senior Kris Jenkins sat for most of the first half because of foul trouble and played just 24 minutes, his second-fewest this season. Despite the limited playing time, Jenkins — the hero of the 2016 national title game — scored eight points in the first half and finished with 14 total for the Wildcats.
But it was Villanova’s suffocating defense that keyed the dominant victory. The Wildcats held Creighton leading scorer Marcus Foster to 13 points on 5 of 13 shooting, including 1 of 5 from downtown. Foster entered the game averaging more than 18 points per game.
Creighton connected on just 41.4 percent of its field-goal attempts and 6 of its 24 three-pointers.
“These guys really executed,” Wright said of his defense. “We knew if we just let them run their stuff, we could get sliced up. So pressure on the ball was really important. And I thought we did a great job of it.”
The Blue Jays stayed competitive through the opening 10 minutes. But then the Wildcats pulled away.
Behind the sharpshooting of Hart — who went 3 of 6 from downtown in the first half — Villanova built a 36-22 halftime lead. They extended the advantage to 20 points early in the second half.
Creighton cut into the deficit over the remaining minutes. But the Wildcats answered each mini run behind the experience and poise of their trio of guards — Hart, Jenkins and Brunson. Nova’s lead remained in double digits for the entirety of the second half.
With the win, Villanova should be in serious contention for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
For Hart, despite all he’s accomplished, there’s still work to do.
“We feel good, but we know we’ve got to keep getting better. We’re not the best team we can be at all, by any means,” Hart said on the court just after the final buzzer, donning a Big East championship hat and t-shirt. “We’ve got to keep getting better. And that’s the biggest part. If we get complacent about this, then we’re not going to end the season the way we want to.”