VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — Jermaine Samuels’ point production mirrored Villanova’s win total over the last three games: a big 0.
Samuels morphed from scoreless to sensational to deny No. 10 Marquette a piece of the Big East crown Wednesday night. He hit five 3-pointers and scored a career-high 29 points as defending national champion Villanova snapped a three-game losing streak with a 67-61 win over the Golden Eagles.
Saddiq Bey hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:31 left to help the Wildcats (21-8, 12-4 Big East) keep their hopes alive for a conference title with a needed win in their final game this season at their on-campus arena. Villanova won its first 10 Big East games and appeared headed to a No. 1 seed in the league tournament next month until it hit the skids on the road — losses to St. John’s, Georgetown and Xavier that opened the door for Marquette.
The Golden Eagles (23-5, 12-3) pounced and would have secured both a share of the Big East title and the top seed in the conference tournament with a victory against ’Nova.
But who would have counted on Samuels to spoil Marquette’s run?
Villanova has tried a maze of options throughout an uneven season to find a reliable third scorer after the 1-2 threat of Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. Booth, who averages 19.6 points, scored 17 and Paschall snapped a streak of 23 straight games in double figures with four points Wednesday. Paschall’s off night left the offense open for another option — and Samuels delivered.
“We’ve been trying to teach him what kind of decisions to make when they don’t guard you,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
The decision was clear, shoot!
Samuels had averaged only 4.1 points per game this season — and that included a 15-point game with three 3-pointers in a win against Temple in early December. The 6-foot-7, 220-pound sophomore forward hit only seven more 3s during that span and was somehow scoreless in each of his last three games. He missed his only two field goal tries (both 3s) and did not attempt a free throw during Villanova’s losing streak.
“I just want to be aggressive and make plays,” Samuels said.
Left open against the Golden Eagles, Samuels hit two 3s in a 15-point first half and shot 10 of 19 overall from the floor.
“I wish we weren’t the only team he hit 3s against,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “They put you in very tough positions because of their ability to shoot from the other positions.”
Samuels buried a tying 3 in the second half that made it 48-all and converted a three-point play that made it 51-all.
The reason for all the ties? Markus Howard, who scored 25 points, reached 1,000 points in his career and proved again why he’s the top Big East player of the year candidate. Howard nailed a pair of go-ahead 3s in the second half and scored 13 of Marquette’s first 23 points in the period.
Howard was whistled for his fourth foul at 9:28 in the second half and went to the bench, slowing Marquette’s roll.
“Getting stops and rebounding, that’s what changes the game,” Booth said.
With Howard out, the five-point favorite Wildcats did just enough to stay in the Big East race. Bey made the decisive 3 for a 61-60 lead and Booth, the two-time national champ, hit a pair of free throws with 1:30 left to keep it a three-point game. Samuels sealed it with two from the line with 11.1 seconds left that had fans going wild on senior night.
“This was March-level intensity,” Wojciechowski said. “It was a heck of a college basketball game. Villanova deserved to win. They made more plays when it counted the most.”
Marquette beat Villanova 66-65 at home this month but has not defeated the Wildcats in consecutive games since sweeping the season series in 2011-12.
With two regular-season games remaining, Villanova needs Marquette to drop at least one of its final three to have a shot at the Big East title.
The Wildcats, who fell out of the Top 25 this week, were on their first three-game losing streak since the 2012-13 season.
Marquette plays next Wednesday at home against Creighton.
Villanova hosts Butler on Saturday at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
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