Sports

Wildcats claw for Big East title versus Xavier

New York. NY (SportsNetwork.com) - The sixth-seeded Xavier Musketeers will take aim at their first-ever Big East Conference Tournament title on Saturday when they square off with the top-seeded and fourth-ranked Villanova Wildcats at Madison Square Garden.

The Musketeers began their postseason with a 67-61 overtime win over the third-seed Butler, then held on for a 65-63 victory over the No. 2 seed Georgetown on Friday. Now, coach Chris Mack will try to guide his squad to an upset of the No. 1 seed which would result in an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately for Xavier, it did not fare well against coach Jay Wright's Wildcats during the regular season. Villanova swept the season series with double-digit wins in both encounters. The Musketeers nearly blew a 21-point lead on Friday before they sank five free-throw attempts over the final 10 seconds of regulation to secure the two-point decision.

Senior center Matt Stainbrook spearheaded the charge versus the Hoyas with 20 points and nine rebounds, while Remy Abell chipped in 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the floor. Stainbrook has been a force on the interior over his last three games, averaging 19.7 points and 9.4 rebounds during that span. The Musketeers went 1-1 in the Big East Tournament last season in their inaugural appearance in the event. They own the longest streak in the nation with 33 straight seasons with a .500 record or better during conference play. Xavier is averaging 74.5 ppg and ranks among the top 10 Division I programs in assists with 16.7 per tilt.

Villanova began its postseason with a bang, as it coasted to an 84-49 decision over Marquette. The 35-point margin of victory was the largest in Big East Tournament history for the Wildcats. They set another record on Friday as their 63-61 decision over Providence gave them a program-record 31 wins, surpassing the mark set by the Scottie Reynolds-led Final Four squad of the 2008-09 campaign.

Wright's squad seemed to be in control of their semifinal matchup with the Friars, as it held a 47-34 lead with 13:40 left in regulation. However, Providence roared back to tie the score at 61 with 12 seconds showing on the game clock. Big East Co-Player of the Year Ryan Arcidiacono came up in the clutch, sinking a pair of free-throw tries with 3.1 seconds left after a debatable foul call sent him to the line on Villanova's final possession. Jason Hart led the Wildcats in scoring for the second straight outing with 18 points, while Daniel Ochefu tallied 15 points, 13 boards and five blocks.

First Team All-Big East selection Darrun Hilliard, who led the Wildcats in scoring during the regular season with 14.2 ppg, chimed in with 12 points before fouling out. Villanova's top interior scorer JayVaughn Pinkston (9.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg) was limited to two points on 0-of-3 shooting from the floor.

Xavier's run to the title game has come in large part due to the fierce play of Stainbrook in the paint. However, the Xavier big man will struggle to find the same success against Ochefu, who is one of the top low-post defenders in the nation. The Musketeers will need a big showing from their star freshman Trevon Bluiett, who was a unanimous pick to the Big East All-Rookie Team after pacing Xavier with 12.2 ppg during the regular season.

The Musketeers certainly have the offensive ability to keep up with the red- hot Wildcats, as they entered the postseason leading the conference in field goal percentage (.478), free-throw percentage (.735) and assists (16.9). Villanova has survived some close calls during its current 14-game winning streak, and it could very well face another tough test against a Xavier squad that is looking to ensure a berth in the field of 68.