By Michael Caldwell

Villanova has made it to the Madness Round of 32, and it has the tough Big East tournament to thanks.

After grinding through the Big East last week, the sixth-seeded Wildcats fed off their conference postseason to get past No. 11 Saint Mary’s, 61-57 in a South Region first-round game in Hartford.

“The Big East Tournament actually really prepared us for this stage,” said freshman forward Saddiq Bey, who came up with a clutch steal with five seconds left to deny a late comeback.

“That’s a major benefit,” added senior guard Phil Booth (above), who led Villanova with 20 points and six assists. “We had games like that where we lost early in the season, so it was good for us to get that experience in the Big East Tournament.”

Senior forward Eric Paschall chipped in 14 points and six rebounds to help the Wildcats pull away for good and secure Villanova a second-round date Saturday against Purdue, which beat Old Dominion.The Wildcats trailed 30-28 at the break, after playing what coach Jay Wright called an “excruciating” tempo in the first half. But they stormed out to a 12-3 run to start the second half and never trail

The previous time the Wildcats were on the court for an NCAA Tournament game, they had celebrated in front of a crowd of 67,831 at the Alamodome in San Antonio. They took the floor against Saint Mary’s on Thursday to a near-empty arena. The building had to be cleared out after the Ja Morant show ended the day’s first NCAA doubleheader, with new ticket holders delayed coming in for the night portion but only a short turnaround on the court.

“It’s really bizarre,” coach Jay Wright said. “That game was intense and well-played from the start. You do worry about those things, you know? They’re 18- and 20-year-old kids. We have a lot of guys in the NCAA Tournament for the first time thinking: This is the NCAA Tournament? There’s no one in the stands. That’s part of it, that’s what comes with it.”

It was not the first-round blowout Villanova became used to as a No. 1 or 2-seed over the past five years, but the newest group will take it just the same.

“Lost a lot of guys, but I feel there’s no expectations,” Paschall said. “Just our expectations to try to play Villanova basketball the best way we can by the end of the season.”

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