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Big East Tournament: Josh Hart scores 29, Villanova breezes to title over Creighton

Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts

Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts during the championship game of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York, New York on Saturday, March 11, 2017. Big East Basketball Tournament between Creighton and Villanova. Credit: Steven Ryan

Josh Hart stood on a podium in the middle of Madison Square Garden, awash in deafening chants of “MVP,” when he was asked if Villanova could repeat as national champions. His answer was drowned out by the screams, but despite the noise, and despite the adrenaline rush of just having won the Big East Tournament, the few audible words painted the picture of a player who was nowhere close to satisfied.

“This is a tough year,” he said to fans who were probably waiting for something a little more rah-rah. “We have to be coachable.”

It says a lot that Hart, the Big East player of the year, doesn’t speak in tantalizing, crowd-pleasing sound bites. He speaks in realities. And the reality is that Saturday night, top-seeded Villanova, the No. 2 team in the nation, fulfilled its destiny and made easy work of No. 6 seed Creighton to win its second Big East title in three years, a 74-60 victory. Hart scored 29 points, with six rebounds, and Jalen Brunson added 17 points.

Nice, right? Well, as Hart is all too quick to mention, the Wildcats still have a lot of work to do.

“If we get complacent about this, then, you know, we’re not going to end the season the way we want to,” Hart said mere minutes after the final buzzer. “We’ve got to keep getting better.”

It’s hard to see them being much better than they were Saturday.

In a dominant display, the high-energy Wildcats (31-3) appeared to subdue Creighton after only 10 minutes of play. Hart’s three with 10:08 left in the first half broke a tie at 11, and though the Bluejays desperately tried to rally, Villanova’s monster had awakened, and Creighton would never catch up.

Hart scored 15 in the first half, including back-to-back treys to put the Wildcats up 22-15. And though they led by as many as 20 in the second half, Villanova never let up, looking more like a team that was playing against its own expectations than the Bluejays’ defense

They scored 21 points on 17 turnovers, led for more than 36 minutes, and limited Creighton to 6-for-24 from downtown. Marcus Foster and Cole Huff each had 13 points, leading Creighton (25-9).

“These guys really executed,” coach Jay Wright said. “I think Greg’s [McDermott’s] teams execute as well as anybody, if not the best in the country. We knew if we just let them run their stuff, we could get sliced up. So pressure on the ball was really important. And I thought we did a great job.”

The victory bolsters Villanova’s chance of earning the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, something Wright said they think they’ll achieve, though he said it didn’t matter; they’re just excited to get another shot at the title.

That’s kind of the theme right now. The defending NCAA champs are laser focused on going back to back, though that feat hasn’t been accomplished in 10 years, when Florida did it. The proof is in their reaction. When they won the Big East Tournament two years ago, the team stormed the court, delirious with excitement. On Saturday, they were proven veterans with another notch in their belt. The line to cut down the net was orderly, the showboating on the winner’s podium somewhat subdued.

“I think part of it was just exhaustion,” Hart said. “We just played as hard as we could for 40 minutes. And then definitely we know we’ve got to get a lot better. We’ve got to keep being coachable. I think that was the other half of that. And obviously, we’re very humble, very honored to win this against a tough Creighton team. Give them all the respect and credit. But we’ve got to keep getting better.”

He wore the net around his neck when he said that — smiling, tired, happy.

But absolutely not satisfied.

New York Sports