‘Nova impreses through tough Big East stretch



Greg Habeeb


At 24-2, the Villanova Wildcats are off to the best 26 game start in program history. Their latest victims? Conference foes No. 18 Butler and Seton Hall. ’Nova took care of business against two of their toughest opponents, nipping Butler 68-65 at the Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday night before crushing previously pesky Seton Hall 80-54 at the Pavilion two nights later.

Senior guard Darrun Hilliard stole the show on Saturday night against Butler, nailing eight 3-pointers en route to a career high 31 point scoring performance.

The eight threes tied a Wildcats record, originally set by Allan Ray in 2005, though none were more important than the 8th, as junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono exploited a lapse of discipline by the Bulldog defense and found a wide open Hilliard behind the arc.

“I guess I played good,” Hilliard said sheepishly postgame.

Hilliard nailed the shot to give the Wildcats a 68-65 lead with 1.2 seconds remaining, and Butler’s last ditch effort to tie fell short.

Wildcats Head Coach Jay Wright pointed to the reliability of a pair of his veteran players as to how the ’Cats were able to have the steady hand down the stretch while on the road against a tough opponent.

“We really had to play off of Darrun’s decisions and [senior forward] JayVaughn [Pinkston’s] decisions,” Wright said. “Fortunately we have a couple of seniors that can do that.”

Pinkston was the only other Wildcat with double digit points. He contributed 12 to go along with four rebounds.

Butler was led by a pair of guards, senior Alex Barlow and junior Kellen Dunham, who dropped 19 points each. Senior forward Kameron Woods added a game high 12 rebounds.

But it was Hilliard who played the hero with his last second heroics. He acknowledged that that final play was something the Wildcats work on in practice and like to go to in crunch time.

“That happened earlier in the year and I missed it,” Hilliard said. “It just so happened this time, it went down.”

Hilliard was likely referring to Villanova’s final possession in regulation against Seton Hall in the first matchup of the season between the two teams.

In that January contest, the Wildcats ran a similar play where Arcidiacono drew in the defense before kicking the ball out to Villanova’s leading scorer on the right wing behind the arc. Hilliard was unable to convert in that instance, and ’Nova lost that game in overtime.

Seton Hall is one of only two teams to hand the Wildcats a loss this season along with conference-mate Georgetown. ’Nova seemed intent on giving the Pirates the same fate that it dealt to the Hoyas on Feb. 7, racing out to a 14-4 lead within the first six minutes of the game, a lead it would never relinquish.

“We were much more focused defensively today,” Wright said of his team’s effort.

The Pirates battled back, cutting the lead to three after junior guard Sterling Gibbs hit a shot from deep with 12:19 to go in the first half to make the score 16-13.

Villanova responded a couple of possessions later when Hilliard made a three pointer through contact and made the ensuing free throw to complete a four point play.

This keyed a 10-0 run that included another Hilliard and-one, and stretched the Wildcats lead to 26-13. Seton Hall was never able to recover, and Villanova cruised to a double digit victory.

Arcidiacono scored 12 points and became one of a select few Wildcats to surpass the 1,000 point mark for his career. He also added 4 assists.

“It means a lot [to reach that milestone]. There’s been a lot of great players in this program but there’s also been so many that haven’t got to 1,000 points.” Arcidiacono said. “But I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, I’m just happy with the way we played tonight.

Junior forward Daniel Ochefu filled up the box score with a well-rounded performance. Ochefu had 11 points, and a game-high 12 rebounds in addition to 4 assists and a pair of steals.

Ochefu and Arcidiacono were part of another balanced effort from the Wildcats, who had five players score in double figures.

Once again, however, it was Villanova’s sophomore sensation, guard Josh Hart, who provided the extra energy off of the bench. In addition to his signature springy offensive boards, Hart brought the crowd to its feet with 7:43 to play in the first half when he flew in from the weak side to swat away a layup attempt by Pirates freshman forward Angel Delgado.

The Wildcats headed into halftime leading 36-20. Though Seton Hall managed to keep the game from getting out of hand for the first part of the second half, Villanova continued to stretch the lead with a 23-5 run to put the contest out of reach for good.

“Three games in six days whether they’re home or away doesn’t matter. It’s mentally grinding,” Wright said. “It’s really difficult at this time of the year. I was pleased, I thought we did a really good job with only preparing one day.”