BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jay Wright can’t figure it out and won’t try. His Villanova Wildcats are headed to the third round of the NCAA tournament, and that’s all that matters.
Darrun Hilliard scored 16 points, JayVaughn Pinkston added 13 and the Wildcats beat Milwaukee 73-53 on Thursday night in a game that was closer than the final score would indicate.
Villanova (29-4), the No. 2 seed in the East Region, will play seventh-seeded Connecticut (27-8) on Saturday. The Huskies held off Saint Joseph’s 89-81 in overtime.
No. 15 seed Milwaukee (21-14), the surprise champion of the Horizon League, made it a game all the way, leading much of the first half before fading late.
“I just look at it like this: For some reason with us, we win them, but we struggle when we’re a high seed playing a second-round game,” said Wright, whose Wildcats failed to win a game in their last two tournament appearances. “Tough-fought game. That was not, as everybody who was here knows, a 20-point game.”
Villanova was eager to get back on the court after being upset last week by Seton Hall in the Big East quarterfinals, but the effect of that loss seemed to linger.
A 14-point run spanning halftime gave the Wildcats a nine-point lead early in the second half and they held on. Hilliard’s long 3-pointer from the top of the key with 8:10 left gave them a 53-42 advantage, and the Panthers couldn’t recover.
Hilliard kept Villanova in the game in the first half, scoring 11 points when his teammates struggled and Milwaukee was thinking upset.
“I was just trying to be aggressive, make plays for myself and my teammates,” Hilliard said. “I was seeing lanes I could take, and I was able to finish. Just trying to make plays out there, that’s all.”
James Bell had 12 points for Villanova on 5-of-14 shooting and missed all eight 3s he attempted. Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart each scored 11.
Austin Arians had 17 points to lead Milwaukee and Matt Tiby scored 10. Jordan Aaron, Milwaukee’s leading scorer, finished with six points, all in the second half, on 1-of-15 shooting. Kyle Kelm, second in scoring, had eight points, all after the break.
The Panthers’ rags-to-riches march into the tourney ended, but not without a fight. Several players went into the stands after the final horn to chat with fans about a memorable season.
“It’s an awesome feeling when you are traveling from Milwaukee to Buffalo and Villanova’s only traveling from Philly and we see as many fans as we had tonight,” said Austin Arians, who led Milwaukee with 17 points. “It’s an awesome feeling to know that we had the support of Milwaukee behind us.”
Villanova outscored Milwaukee 46-20 in the paint and had 19 fast-break points to overcome a woeful 4-for-23 shooting performance from behind the arc.
“They’re a good defensive team, they really are,” Wright said. “They’re very smart about how they defend. They give you a shot you think is open, but then they’re right on you. Darrun was the only guy that could get through their initial defense. He hit some tough shots in the lane. That was big for us. We were really struggling. He got us going.”
After struggling mightily, Villanova scored the final nine points of the first half and the first five of the second. Pinkston’s three-point play and follow gave Villanova a 32-23 lead.
Kelm’s first basket of the game, a layup off the glass, stopped a scoreless skid that had lasted more than 6 minutes as the lead was cut to seven.
After Aaron missed an open 3, Hart countered with a three-point play for Villanova and Jenkins followed with a 3 in transition after blocking a shot by JeVon Lyle at the other end. That gave the Wildcats a 42-33 lead midway through the half.
Villanova extended the margin to 55-44 on Hart’s layup with 7:19 left, and the Panthers never got closer than nine the rest of the way.
“They do a nice job of fighting and being aggressive, and eventually they just wear you down, and I think that’s what happened to us,” Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter said. “They really kept us off balance most of the evening, and we weren’t able to establish clean post looks and get to the free throw line when it mattered.”
Milwaukee closed the season with five straight wins, including a surprising overtime victory against preseason favorite Green Bay in the Horizon League tournament, to surpass the 20-win plateau.
Not bad for a team that finished 8-24 a year ago. Milwaukee’s 13-win increase was the best year-to-year improvement in the country, and the Panthers were the only team in the NCAA tournament that finished last in its league a year ago.