CINCINNATI — Junior guard Darrun Hilliard scored 19 points and No. 6 Villanova held off a late Xavier rally to beat the Musketeers 77-70 Thursday night at the Cintas Center.
The win clinches the Wildcats’ first Big East regular-season title in eight years and their first outright league title in 32 years.
Xavier cut a 12-point deficit, 69-57, with 1:35 remaining to three points, 73-70, with 21.1 seconds left, but guard Josh Hart and forward James Bell each made a pair of free throws to seal the victory for Villanova.
Villanova (27-3, 15-2) last won the Big East regular-season crown in 2006 when it shared the title with Syracuse. The only other time the Wildcats won the Big East outright was in 1982. Villanova will have the top seed in next week’s Big East tournament regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s home finale against Georgetown.
Creighton, which has handed Villanova its two conference losses, will be seeded second.
Xavier (20-12, 10-8) got 20 points from forward Justin Martin and 18 points from guard Semaj Christon, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Musketeers from dropping just their second game at home this season.
Xavier’s regular season is complete. The Musketeers can finish anywhere from third to fifth place in the Big East depending on results of games on Saturday.
Hilliard had a career-high 26 points on 7-of-11 shooting last Sunday against Marquette. He made 6-of-10 shots against Xavier, including 5-of-8 in the first half. Forward JayVaughn Pinkston added 15 points and six rebounds while guard Ryan Arcidiacono had 11 points. Hilliard, Arcidiacono and forward Kris Jenkins each made three 3-pointers.
Eight Wildcats scored in the first half, led by Hilliard with 13 points, and Villanova led 41-36 at halftime. The Wildcats made half of their 12 3-point shots in the half while shooting 14-of-25 (56 percent) overall from the field.
Xavier got 12 first-half points from Martin and kept things close by making 11 of 12 free throws.
Villanova’s Bell picked up two quick fouls, including a flagrant one technical for an elbow against Xavier forward Isaiah Philmore. After sinking both free throws, Philmore added a basket inside on the ensuing possession as Xavier took a 7-0 lead.
The Wildcats answered with a 7-0 run to tie the game, but they didn’t take their first lead until Hilliard hit a 3-pointer from the left corner and Bell scored off a steal for a 21-18 advantage.
The game was tied five times and featured five lead changes in the first half.
NOTES: Xavier played without junior C Matt Stainbrook, who suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament during the Musketeers’ 71-62 loss at Seton Hall on Monday. … Villanova coach Jay Wright is a cousin to new Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. … Xavier freshman G Myles Davis ended a four-game basket-less streak with a 3-pointer in the first half. Davis had missed 12 consecutive field-goal attempts, including nine 3-pointers, before his shot with 6:48 left in the half gave Xavier a 26-24 lead.
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