St. Mary's keeps it close buts falls in opener to Villanova

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HARTFORD, Connecticut — Villanova got off to a slow start in defense of its national title as the Wildcats slogged through the deliberate pace set by determined St. Mary’s.

Villanova had three players in double figures, led for almost 33 minutes but never by more than eight points, and finally clawed out a 61-57 victory over St. Mary’s in the first round of the South Region.

“The tempo was excruciating,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “We felt going in we were going to have to grind with them.”

The 11th-seeded Gaels used the same slow pace to upset Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament and it gave them a chance against sixth-seeded Villanova (26-9) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Phil Booth scored 20 points for Villanova and fellow senior Eric Paschell added 14, while Jermaine Samuels chipped in 12.

Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts each had 13 points for Saint Mary’s (22-12).

Ford’s basket in the lane after a few nifty moves got the Gaels within six points at 61-55 with 34 seconds left.

After Paschell missed a foul shot on the other end, Fitts cut the deficit to four points with a leaner in the lane. The Gaels had two more chances in the final seconds but Fitts hit the rim on a 3-point attempt and Villanova freshman Saddiq Bey stole the ball from Ford in the final seconds to seal the win.

“We had a few games this year where we put the press on and were able to get back in the game,” said Ford. “And if we get a few of those loose balls, or maybe make a three when we were down four, I think it’s a different game.”

Saint Mary’s led 30-28 at the half, but Booth scored the first five points after intermission during a 12-3 run that put the Wildcats up 40-33. He had 12 points and five of his six assists in the second half.

Wright praised his veterans for carrying the Wildcats to the win.

“We’re growing, our young guys are growing, but we have two seniors who do everything for us, on and off the court,” Wright said. “We’re just so lucky to have them.”

Big picture

Villanova: The defending champions are in the tournament for the 14th time in 15 seasons and improved to 14-1 since 2016, including two national titles.

St. Mary’s: The Gaels are 4-6 in opening round games in the NCAA Tournament and 5-10 overall. St. Mary’s has advanced to the Sweet 16 once in the modern era when it beat the Wildcats in 2010. There’s a reminder of that run in the hallway outside the locker room that the players see as they walk out to practice each day in McKeon Pavilion.

Empty arena

The game tipped to a relatively empty arena, but it wasn’t because nobody had bought tickets.

Fans of the Wildcats, many of whom made the 4-hour drive from Philadelphia to Hartford, Connecticut, were lined up along with Gaels fans behind metal detectors as security emptied the arena from the afternoon session.

“You worry about those things, you know?” Wright said. “We have a lot of guys in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, thinking ‘This is the NCAA Tournament?’ There’s no one in the stands.”

By halftime, the 16,000-seat XL Center was nearing capacity, but some frustrated fans were sill filing in.

From distance

The game was billed as a battle between one of the nation’s top 3-point shooting teams in Villanova against some of the nation’s best perimeter defenders. In the end, the Wildcats finished 8 of 20 from behind the arc, while St. Mary’s was 8 of 22.

On the boards

The taller Gaels won the rebounding battle 33-29 and 10-5 on the offensive end. The Wildcats didn’t have an offensive board until the second half and that led to an 11-4 advantage for Saint Mary’s in second-chance points.

Wright said this year’s team was hurt by the transfer of 6-foot-9 Dylan Painter, but is going to have to find a way against taller opponents.

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