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NEW YORK – Villanova’s trip to New York City didn’t start the way it wanted, having to walk six blocks to Madison Square Garden after its bus got caught in a Midtown traffic snarl on Thursday, but it ended exactly how Jay Wright and the Wildcats envisioned – cutting down the nets and adding another Big East Conference tournament title to the trophy case.
In dominant fashion yet again, the Wildcats trounced the Creighton Bluejays 74-60 in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, winning its 10th straight March contest, dating back to last year’s national championship run.
“It feels a lot better than I’m probably showing,” Wright said. “I just enjoy seeing my guys enjoy it and win because I know it’s special to them, too. I get the feeling — a real good glow inside seeing these guys be happy and accomplish something.”
In another familiar sight for the Wildcats, senior guard Josh Hart led the way, scoring a game-high 29 points en route to winning the Dave Gavitt Trophy as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Hart’s performance put him in elite company, joining Peyton Siva and Patrick Ewing as the only players in the conference’s history to win the award twice.
“It’s amazing, he was tournament MVP as a sophomore, and he’s better in every aspect of the game,” Wright said. “Going into this tournament, I think he put it all together. It was his leadership, it was his decision-making, his defense, his rebounding.”
While the final score illustrated why Villanova has been the class of the conference all season, Creighton fought early in the first half before Hart took over. With 10:28 to play before halftime and the score tied 11-11, Hart showed why he was named the Big East’s player of the year, scoring 11 straight points to give the Wildcats the lead for good.
“Very deserving champion,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said. “The way they play is how we all aspire to get our teams to play. They’re so disciplined. Their shot selection is incredible, attention to detail, hustle plays.”
For Hart, who has more trophies this season than he likely knows what to do with, the three-game stint at MSG furthers his candidacy for the John R. Wooden award, given to the best player in the nation.
“He’s just done everything,” Wright said. “I think he’s a complete basketball player. I think he’s the best, most complete player in the country.
“And I’m sure I’m biased. I don’t spend time with those other guys, but I don’t see anybody that does everything like he does.”
Hart was not the only Wildcat to be showered with accolades. Fellow senior Kris Jenkins, the hero from last year’s national championship game against North Carolina, and sophomore Jalen Brunson were named to the Big East All-Tournament Team.
“Great leadership from our seniors,” Wright said. “[Brunson and Hart] were just special, really special. We’ve got good players and that’s what does it. I think the two characteristics they have that are unique is humility and intelligence.”
Humble is right. For a team that had just won its second Big East Conference tournament in the past three years, Villanova’s post-game celebration was relatively measured. Much like their pristinely dressed head coach looks on the sidelines – and seemingly at every moment – the players took a business-like approach.
“I think last time we ran on, we stormed the court, everyone’s jumping around, doing all that,” Hart said. “I think part of it was just exhaustion. We just played as hard as we could for 40 minutes. we’re very humble, very honored to win this against a tough Creighton team. Give them all the respect and credit.”
It’s not as if the Wildcats don’t appreciate the victory, it’s that they know they have a massive target on their back and there’s more work to do.
The Big East win, combined with an early loss in the Big 12 tournament by Kansas, means Wildcats are now more than likely going to be the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament when the selection committee unveils the bracket on Sunday.
“We’re still in this Big East mode,” Wright said. “We’re going to stay in New York tonight. We’re going to enjoy this. Then we’re going to go home and it’s going to be Selection Sunday and start dealing with all the repeat, 1 seed, all that. Handling all that is going to be the biggest obstacle.”
Expectations and the fact that 67 other teams will be gunning for them, looking to end the dream of becoming the first back-to-back national champions since Billy Donovan’s Florida teams in 2006 and 2007.
“There’s definitely a hangover from last year, which however you define it put pressure on us through this season,” Wright said. “I thought we handled it really well. And now this is the final piece going into the tournament. I don’t know what we’re going to feel like until a couple days ahead.”
So while Villanova reached its destination in New York City, another journey starts very soon, one that will be much longer than six blocks and last more than three days.
“They know they won this game, but there’s some things we have to do better and that’s how we’ll handle it going forward,” Wright said.
“We’re going to be fine.”