VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP)Zach Freemantle scored 29 points, including eight in a row during a crucial stretch late in the second half, to lead No. 18 Xavier to its ninth straight victory, 88-80 over Villanova on Saturday.
Souley Boum added 22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for the Musketeers (13-3, 5-0 Big East), who extended their best-ever Big East conference start. Adam Kunkel chipped in 15 points and Cam Jones had 11 for Xavier.
It was Xavier’s first victory at Villanova since joining the Big East in 2013.
”It felt really good,” Freemantle said. ”We were not going to lose this year.”
Cam Whitmore scored 26 points, Caleb Daniels had 23 and Eric Dixon added 19 for Villanova (8-8, 2-3).
”Hats off to Xavier,” Villanova first-year coach Kyle Neptune said. ”They’re a really elite offensive team.”
The Wildcats have been the standard bearer of the Big East over the last decade, winning seven of the last nine regular-season titles and five conference tournament titles. They also captured two NCAA titles over that span while accumulating 22 NCAA tournament wins.
That was all under coach Jay Wright, who surprisingly retired after last season. Neptune is in the tough position of replacing a Hall of Famer while trying to fend off teams wanting payback for Villanova’s dominance under Wright.
The Musketeers sensed their chance for revenge in the second half and took advantage.
”What Jay Wright built here and what they’ve meant to the Big East conference speaks for itself,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said. ”We’re not the only program that’s had a tough time on this court, or against Villanova. To be able to come in here today, we’re thrilled we were able to win.”
Whitmore tied the game at 44 with a 3-pointer 4:19 after the break before the Musketeers took control. Jack Nunge, Boum and Kunkel each nailed 3s during an 11-3 run over the next 3:09 that pushed Xavier’s advantage to 55-47 with 12:32 left. Freemantle’s drive with 8:41 to play made it 59-50, matching the Musketeers’ largest lead of the contest.
The Wildcats twice cut the margin to four before Freemantle gave Xavier breathing room.
The 6-foot-9 senior from Teaneck, New Jersey hit a 3 late in the shot clock, rebounded Kunkel’s 3-point miss on the next possession with a basket from close range and finished the pivotal stretch with a corner 3 to give Xavier a 69-60 lead with 4:28 remaining.
”I knew I had to get it up because anything is better than a turnover; I was going to shoot that one regardless,” Freemantle said of the first 3.
On the rebound: ”I jumped over a guard. I’m a big. The law of verticality. That was a layup.”
On the final 3: ”(The defender’s) standing in the paint. That was kind of disrespectful, so I had to shoot that one.”
Freemantle made 12 of 17 field goals, including 2 of 2 from 3-point range, and grabbed 11 rebounds.
”He was clearly the best player in the game,” Miller said.
The Musketeers, fresh off knocking off then-No. 2 and undefeated UConn 83-73 last Saturday, came out strong.
Xavier jumped out to a 16-7 lead on Kunkel’s 3-pointer with 14:05 left in the first half. But Villanova netted 13 of the next 15 over 6:19 to take a 20-18 lead as the Musketeers missed seven of eight field goals. The teams stayed close from that point until the break, with Xavier scoring the final five points on Hunter’s dunk and Boum’s 3 with 54 seconds to play.
Xavier: The Musketeers are in great position to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018, when they made their fifth consecutive trip to the Big Dance. Xavier had been a regular in the tournament at that point, having reached in 12 of 13 seasons before the current drought.
Villanova: The Wildcats will look to rebound against DePaul on Tuesday. Villanova has a 22-game winning streak against the Blue Demons.
Villanova: Sophomore guard Jordan Longino (left leg) didn’t play after getting hurt late in the first half of Wednesday’s 73-57 win at Georgetown. He is averaging 6.7 points per contest.
Xavier: Hosts Creighton on Wednesday.
Villanova: At DePaul on Tuesday.
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