HARTFORD, Conn. — Phil Booth scored 20 points and defending NCAA Tournament champion Villanova held off Saint Mary’s in a hard-fought, 61-57 victory Thursday night.
Fellow senior Eric Paschall added 14 points for the sixth-seeded Wildcats, who led for almost 33 minutes, but never by more than eight points.
“The tempo was excruciating,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We felt going in that we were going to have to grind with them.”
Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts each had 13 points for Saint Mary’s (22-12). The 11th-seeded Gaels, who upset Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament, had a chance down the stretch in this one.
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 Paschall missed a foul shot, Fitts cut the deficit to four points with a leaner in the lane.
The Gaels had two more chances in the final seconds after a foul by Booth and some missed free throws. But Fitts hit the rim on a three-point attempt and Saddiq Bey stole the ball from Ford in the final seconds.
Saint Mary’s led 30-28 at the half, but Booth scored the first five points after intermission, part of a 12-3 run that put the Wildcats up 40-33.
The defending champions are in the tournament for the 14th time in 15 seasons and improve to 14-1 since 2016, including two national titles. It was the 23rd consecutive win on a neutral court for the Wildcats.
“We’re growing, our young guys are growing, but we have two seniors who do anything for us,” Wright said. “We’re just so lucky to have them.”
Villanova will play No. 3 seed Purdue or 14th-seeded Old Dominion in the second round Saturday.
The Gaels are 4-6 in opening-round games in the NCAA Tournament and 5-10 overall. Saint Mary’s advanced to the Sweet 16 once in the modern era, in 2010.