The Gonzaga Bulldogs and Villanova Wildcats squared off for the first time at Madison Square Garden, one of basketball’s most revered venues, but it was a night the Zags would probably like to have back as the Wildcats put on a dominant performance in an 88-72 win.
Mikal Bridges was the catalyst for Villanova on both ends of the floor, scoring 28 points (8-14 FG, 5-9 3PA) while playing such strong defense that even the sound of his footsteps forced a Gonzaga turnover. Bridges capped off his big night with a thunderous dunk in the second half that felt like the nail in the coffin for Gonzaga’s chances. Zach Norvell Jr. led the Zags in scoring with 22 points (8-12 FG), and Josh Perkins chipped in 16 points (4-12 FG).
Gonzaga was in a good position to make a big statement on a big stage after a strong win against another Big East team in Creighton and continuing to climb the rankings. But it was Villanova who showed why it is widely considered to be one of the best teams in the nation and why it should be expected to make another deep run in March.
The Zags ran out to a quick start, showcasing the versatility of the roster in getting their first four baskets from four different players. However, Villanova’s pressure defense began to turn the screws and forced Gonzaga into a slew of sloppy turnovers it could ill-afford (11 through first 13 minutes). The Zags looked flustered on the offensive end and short on solutions to unlock the Villanova defense as the Wildcats stretched their lead to as much as 17 points thanks to suffocating defense.
Perhaps most jarring was how much more aggressive Villanova was, beating Gonzaga on the boards and to seemingly every loose ball. On the offensive end, the Wildcats took a surgical approach in dissecting Gonzaga’s defense. The ball moved well and the Wildcats found favorable matchups in the post or open shots on the perimeter with alarming frequency.
It was a small miracle, then, that the score was only 43-30 in Villanova’s favor when the teams broke for the half, as the scoreline could have been much more crooked and no one would have argued against it.
After 20 minutes of playing back on their heels, the Zags were the aggressors coming out of the break and cut the deficit down to seven points in just a few minutes thanks to a pair of Tillie baskets and a Norvell three. But just as the Zags appeared to be stitching a run together, Mikal Bridges put the lead back to double digits with a corner three and then a layup off a baseline cut.
That was the story for much of the second half as the Wildcats were able to fend off every Gonzaga run each time it threatened. Not even foul trouble for star point guard Jalen Brunson (12 points) and trusted 6th man Dante DiVIncenzo (9 points) could slow down the Cats.
Villanova was simply the more balanced and composed side, in full control on both ends of the floor and capable of countering each Gonzaga blow. The Bulldogs simply had too many empty performances from key players as Johnathan Williams III (5pts, 4 rebounds and sat for long stretches of the game due to foul trouble before fouling out with 5 minutes left in the game), Killian Tillie (6 points, 4 turnovers), and Rui Hachimura all struggled to get any traction in the game.
The Zags head back to the West Coast hoping to wash the bad taste of this loss away against in-state rival Washington on Sunday.