When Louisville and Villanova met in a tight, physical battle more than two months ago, each team got a taste of what was ahead in a challenging Big East season, and both squads are happy with how it turned out.
Only one of the two will get a chance to play for the conference tournament title, however, something the fifth-ranked Cardinals and No. 10 Wildcats will settle when they meet in the semifinals Friday night at Madison Square Garden - a game Villanova reached with a thrilling last-second victory.
Louisville was ranked 23rd when it won 61-60 at then-No. 18 Villanova on Jan. 10, but neither surging team has received as much attention this season as league rivals Connecticut and Pittsburgh, both of which have held the No. 1 spot in the Top 25.
However, it was the Cardinals (26-5) who earned the top seed in the Big East tournament by going 16-2 in conference play, including five wins over ranked teams and a seven-game winning streak to close the regular season. With two more victories, they could end up with a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I think Louisville is the best team in our conference,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They’ve proved it all year.”
Louisville was especially dominant in a 73-55 win over Providence in the quarterfinals Thursday afternoon. Junior Earl Clark led the way with 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, while freshman Samardo Samuels added 22 points on 10-of-13 shooting.
Coach Rick Pitino’s club held opponents to 39.5 percent shooting during the regular season - second in the Big East - and again played stifling defense in limiting the Friars to 33.9 percent from the field while forcing 26 turnovers.
“I think they’re the most aggressive defense we’ve faced, and consistently aggressive,” Providence’s Weyinmi Efejuku said. “Forty minutes, they’re in your face.”
Villanova (26-6) got a feel for it in its third Big East game of the season, shooting 37.7 percent in one of its two home losses in 17 games this season.
That game, however, was hardly easy for the Cardinals, who needed a Terrence Williams basket and a defensive stop in the final 10 seconds to win.
In another physical game that featured a combined 66 free-throw attempts, the fourth-seeded Wildcats got a last-second layup to beat No. 21 Marquette in a quarterfinal matchup Thursday, as senior Dwayne Anderson’s backdoor basket gave them a 76-75 win.
Junior guard Scottie Reynolds had 18 of his 21 points in the first half to help Villanova to a 16-point lead at the break, but the Wildcats allowed a furious Marquette rally and briefly trailed before Reggie Redding found Anderson for the winning points - coming on his only basket of the game.
“It definitely means a lot,” Anderson said. “I’ve been through a lot these four years, the ups and downs, the highs and lows. … We’re not quite there, we’re getting close to it.”
Corey Stokes added 20 points for Villanova, which has averaged 82.5 points and shot 47.4 percent since the beginning of February.
The Wildcats have won five straight against ranked opponents and are 5-4 in their last nine meetings with top-5 teams.
While Villanova hasn’t reached a Big East final since 1997, two years after its only league tournament victory, Louisville will be looking for its first appearance in the championship game since moving from Conference USA before the 2005-06 season.