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HARTFORD, Conn. (CBS/AP) — Phil Booth scored 20 points and defending NCAA Tournament champion Villanova held off Saint Mary’s in a hard-fought 61-57 victory on Thursday night. Fellow senior Eric Paschell added 14 points for the sixth-seeded Wildcats, who led for almost 33 minutes, but never by more than eight points.
Almost every seat was filled in Villanova’s Connelly Center, for a watch party.
“I’m trying to develop the spirit thing really early on,” sophomore Christopher Bassani said. “I see a lot of people are coming and saying Oh, it’s just the first round, it’s not really deep in the tournament yet. But I won best school spirit in HS and I wanted to get this started as soon as possible.”
Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts each had 13 points for Saint Mary’s, which finished the season 22-12. The 11th-seeded Gaels, who pulled off an upset win over 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 Paschell missed a foul shot on the other end, 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 3-point attempt and Saddiq Bey stole the ball from Ford in the final seconds to seal the win.
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.
Villanova: 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.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels are 4-6 in opening round games in the NCAA Tournament and 5-10 overall. Saint Mary’s has advanced to the Sweet 16 once in the modern era when it beat the Wildcats in 2010 to advance, but went on to lose to Baylor 63-49. There’s a reminder of that run in the hallway outside the locker room that the players see as they walk out to practice each day in McKeon Pavilion.
Villanova will play No. 3 seed Purdue in the second round Saturday night at 8:40 p.m.
(©Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)