CINCINNATI — So much for preseason prognostications, even when it comes to coaches.
Villanova was picked to finish fourth in the first year of the reconfigured Big East by the coaches, but the Wildcats claimed the program’s first conference regular-season title in eight years and their first outright league title in 32 years by holding off a late Xavier rally and beating the Musketeers 77-70 on Thursday night at the Cintas Center in front of a capacity crowd of 10,340.
Junior guard Darrun Hilliard scored 19 points as No. 6 Villanova improved to 27-3 overall and 15-2 in the Big East. The win adds to Villanova’s school record for regular-season victories.
The Wildcats led by 12 points, 69-57, with 1:35 remaining before Xavier (20-11, 10-8) cut the lead to 73-70 with 21.1 seconds left. Guard Josh Hart and forward James Bell each made two free throws to seal the victory for Villanova.
Bell, a senior, finished with 12 points, pushing him past 1,000 for his career. He now has scored 1,006 points for the Wildcats.
Bell had little thought about surpassing that individual mark, however. He was more concerned with what the Wildcats completed and what they still have in front of them.
“It’s a big accomplish,” Bell said. “It’s a testament to how hard we work and where we came from. It’s definitely a big accomplishment, but we can’t stop here. We’ve got to keep getting better as a team and take it as far as we can go.”
Villanova last won the Big East regular-season title in 2006 when it shared it 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. The Big East tournament begins Wednesday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Villanova has proved it can play anywhere. Thursday’s win improved the Wildcats to 13-2 in road and neutral court games.
“Our play on the road has just been incredible,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “You’re not going to win any championships if you can’t win on the road and I thought tonight was a great example. You’re playing an outstanding team in a tough environment.
“We have great respect for this league, and to win this league is really a hell of an accomplishment.”
Xavier got 20 points from forward Justin Martin and 18 points from guard Semaj Christon, but it was not enough to keep the Musketeers from dropping just their second game at home this season. Xavier made just 6 of 24 3-point shots, including missing its first 11 attempts in the second half.
Xavier’s regular season is complete. The Musketeers, who were picked to finish seventh in the preseason conference poll, can finish anywhere from third to fifth place in the Big East depending on results of games on Saturday.
“We just have to wait and see now,” Christon said. “It’s a new season now. We’re starting from scratch. All of the things we’ve done this season don’t matter. You lose, you go home.
“So you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to keep playing, to keep whatever you’ve got alive. I think we’ll be ready to bounce back and do what we’ve got to do.”
Xavier coach Chris Mack believes his team has done what it needs to do to return to the NCAA tournament after missing the cut last year.
“We’re going to finish the year with 20 wins, our strength of schedule right now sits at (No.) 20 and history has shown that any team with a top-20 schedule in the country that finishes with 20 wins is an NCAA tournament team. Period,” Mack said.
Hilliard had a career-high 26 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field 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, and 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
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