NEW YORK (AP) — Jay Wright was raised on 1980s Big East basketball. He loves the big games that always made this time of the year special at Madison Square Garden with powerhouses like Georgetown, Syracuse and St. John’s leading the charge.
Wright knows greed and defections means those days are long gone.
But here’s what Wright understands, as well: this reinvented Big East is pretty good at making its own memorable March memories.
Wright became the winningest coach in Villanova history with 414, and the No. 2 Wildcats opened defense of their Big East Tournament championship in a 94-70 win over Marquette on Thursday night.
Wright improved to 414-165 since he took the job in 2001 and has led the Wildcats to the 2009 Final Four and 2016 national championship. He was tied with Al Severance, who went 413-201 from 1936-1961.
He’s alone atop the record book — and should put the total far out of reach.
“I’m mostly proud to be the coach of Villanova, honestly,” Wright said. “The wins and everything don’t matter. I know I’ll look back on it later.”
Take a look at what’s happening now — the Wildcats (28-4) took control in the second half and showed why their third tournament title in four years is within reach. Mikal Bridges hit four 3s and scored 25 points and Big East player of the year Jalen Brunson scored 21. The Wildcats made 15 of 29 3s — a stunning 11 of 17 in the second half.
Villanova is the No. 2 team in the AP Top 25 — and the tournament. Xavier won the Big East and earned the top seed even though it lost twice this season to the Wildcats.
They seem poised to make it a trilogy in Saturday’s final.
“This is pretty cool,” Wright said. “I’m excited where this league is right now.”
Fresh off a blowout loss, even Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski had to admit the fact that Xavier and Villanova could both earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament was a boon for the league.
“Both teams have a great chance to win the national championship,” he said.
The Wildcats blew this game open early in the second half against the seventh-seeded Golden Eagles (19-13). Brunson hit a 3 to open a 10-point lead and Booth nailed one to make it a 15-point game.
Then the Wildcats just got 3-point silly: Phil Booth, Eric Paschall, Omari Spellman, Brunson, Spellman again and Bridges all hit 3s on six straight scores to turn this into a rout and break out the “Let’s Go Nova!” chants.
“After the game, everyone was talking about shooting,” Brunson said. “Now that I look back at it, yeah, we were really shooting well, but that was the last thing on my mind. We really were just trying to focus on defending and rebounding and playing for each other.”
Markus Howard scored 23 points and Andrew Rowsey had 22 for Marquette. Rowsey had tears running down his cheeks as he sat on the bench in the final minutes.
The Wildcats missed eight of their first 10 3-point attempts before they decided to attack the lane for easy buckets and get the juice going in their offense. Donte DiVincenzo hit a 3 and Bridges converted a four-point play for a five-point lead. Bridges was also fouled on a tough basket underneath for a three-point play. He scored 16 points in the half and flashed the skills that made him an All-Big East pick.
The Golden Eagles, who needed the win to stay in NCAA Tournament contention, were a two-shooter show. Howard and Rowsey combined for seven 3s and 24 of Marquette’s 34 points. Howard and Rowsey would fire off 3s from about any spot on the court — and made just about all of them.
Then they became the latest team to run into the Villanova buzzsaw.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles were doomed by a four-game losing streak in a six of eight streak that knocked them out of NCAA contention.
“I think our team is capable of winning games in the NCAA Tournament,” Wojciechowski said.
Villanova: Wright led the Wildcats, who won the 1985 national title under his mentor Rollie Massimino, to their greatest run of success in program history. They’ve won at least 32 games each of the previous three seasons and he’s led them to the NCAAs all but one year (2012) since 2005. Hired in 2001 to replace Steve Lappas, Wright took the Wildcats to unprecedented success
Marquette will likely miss the NCAA Tournament and hope for a second-tier postseason bid.
The Wildcats swept Seton Hall and went 1-1 vs. Butler.