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.
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 either No. 3 seed Purdue or 14th-seeded Old Dominion in the second round Saturday.