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For at least 20 minutes, Milwaukee made Villanova sweat.

But eventually, the seedings held true late Thursday night into this morning at First Niagara Center.

Darrun Hilliard had 16 points, JayVaughn Pinkston added 13 and the No. 2-seed Wildcats withstood an early scare from the No. 15 Panthers to earn a 73-53 win and a spot in the NCAA Tournament round of 32. Next up for Villanova will be the rekindling of an old Big East rivalry – against UConn on Saturday – with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

“Tough-fought game,” a visibly relieved Villanova coach Jay Wright said at his postgame news conference, cognizant of how the 20-point final margin belied how tight the game was.

In fact, there had to be brief flashes of déjà vu for the Wildcats during the first half Thursday. The last time they held a No. 2 seed, in 2010, they needed overtime to avoid a monumental upset at the hands of 15th-seeded Robert Morris.

“For me, I just accepted it as, ‘this is the way it’s going to be for us,’ ” Wright said of playing another tight game against a big underdog. “For some reason with us, we usually win them, but we struggle when we’re a high seed playing in a first-round game.”

The Panthers had the night owls inside First Niagara thinking about an upset in the making midway through the first half. Nova started the game just 3 of 20 from the field – perhaps taking a bit longer to warm up in a game that tipped off at 10 p.m.

After back-to-back three-pointers by Panthers forward Austin Arians, Wright called a timeout with 4:51 left in the first half and his team trailing, 21-16.

The regrouping worked, as the Wildcats closed with a 9-0 run before intermission. Hilliard providing the much-needed offensive spark, scoring seven points during the stretch – part of his 11 in the first half. Hilliard went 4 of 8 from the field in the first 20 minutes, while his teammates were 6 of 25.

Nova’s run continued into the second half, as junior forward Pinkston scored a pair of buckets and a free throw to take a 32-23 lead.

“Those started with stops that we got and we got easy baskets,” Pinkston said.

“Clearly that changed the momentum of the game,” added Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter.

Nova’s advantage would vacillate between five and eight points early in the second half until a pretty fadeaway jumper from Arians pulled the Panthers within four, 37-33, with 13:16 left in the game. With the crowd again pulling for an upset bid, Milwaukee had a couple of good looks to make it a one-possession game, but blew layups.

That was a problem all night – the Panthers shot just 29 percent (18 of 63) from the field. Like Villanova, Milwaukee was equally sleep at the start. The Horizon League champions didn’t get their first points until almost 5 minutes had passed, on a three-pointer from Matt Tibby.

Nothing came easy for Milwaukee all night. The Panthers attempted just one free throw – which missed – in the first half.

“I thought it was the difference, or the turning point for us in the first half,” Jeter said.

The three ball is what kept the Panthers in the game in the first half. Milwaukee was 5 of 14 (36 percent), with Arians hitting three of those, but just 4 of 19 from elsewhere in the field.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, were ice cold from three-point range at the start, missing their firs 17 attempts. Nova’s first three didn’t go down until Kris Jenkins hit one with 11:59 to go in the game, putting his team up, 42-33.

The lid was finally off the basket, and the Wildcats closed by hitting four of their last six tries from deep.

“As a shooter, you’re going to have good nights, and you’re going to have bad nights. It’s not about making the shots, it’s about taking the right ones and recognizing you’re open,” said Wildcats senior guard James Bell, who added 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting.

Villanova finished the game 28 of 62 (45 percent) from the field. The Wildcats’ strength inside increasingly became apparent as the second half wore on.

They held a 46-37 edge on the glass, outscored Milwaukee 46-20 in the paint and blocked 10 shots to just two for the Panthers.

“Their athleticism to get to some of those rebounds late in the game made the difference,” Jeter said.

Villanova 73, Milwaukee 53

Milwaukee Min FG 3P FT A PF PT

Kelm 33 4-10 0-0 2-4 1 2 8

Tiby 23 2-4 5-6 1-4 1 4 10

Arians 33 6-15 1-2 1-5 0 1 17

Aaron 33 1-15 4-4 1-6 5 3 6

McWhorter 36 1-8 1-2 1-2 5 4 3

Moore 15 0-0 0-1 2-3 0 0 2

Wichmann 1 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

Niang 1 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

Roelke 3 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

Richard 1 0-1 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

Panoske 8 2-2 0-0 3-6 0 0 5

Lyle 12 1-5 0-0 0-3 1 0 2

Gustavson 1 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

Totals 200 18-63 11-15 13-37 13 14 53

Percentages: FG .286, FT .733.

3-Point Goals: 6-24, .250 (Arians 4-10, Panoske 1-1, Tiby 1-1, Lyle 0-1, Moore 0-1, Kelm 0-1, McWhorter 0-2, Aaron 0-7).

Team Rebounds: 4.

Blocked Shots: 2 (Panoske 2).

Turnovers: 12 (Tiby 4, McWhorter 3, Lyle 2, Aaron, Arians, Kelm).

Steals: 4 (Moore, Arians, Aaron, Lyle).

Technical Fouls: None.

Villanova Min FG 3P FT A PF PT

Pinkston 22 4-8 5-7 2-8 1 3 13

Ochefu 22 1-4 2-2 1-9 2 1 4

Hilliard II 27 6-11 3-3 1-1 0 2 16

Arcidiacono 30 1-4 0-1 1-4 3 3 2

Bell 25 5-14 2-2 1-7 2 0 12

Jenkins 19 4-7 0-0 1-3 2 1 11

Hart 30 5-8 1-1 3-7 0 2 11

Chennault 10 2-2 0-0 1-1 2 4 4

Reynolds 1 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

Ennis 14 0-4 0-0 0-2 1 1 0

Totals 200 28-62 1 3-16 12-46 13 17 73

Percentages: FG .452, FT .813.

3-Point Goals: 4-23, .174 (Jenkins 3-4, Hilliard II 1-4, Hart 0-2, Arcidiacono 0-2, Ennis 0-3, Bell 0-8).

Team Rebounds: 4.

Blocked Shots: 10 (Pinkston 3, Jenkins 2, Ochefu 2, Hart, Bell, Ennis).

Turnovers: 11 (Bell 3, Hilliard II 3, Chennault 2, Ochefu, Jenkins, Pinkston).

Steals: 8 (Arcidiacono 3, Bell 3, Hart, Pinkston).

Technical Fouls: None.

Milwaukee 23 30—53

Villanova 27 46—73

A—18,706.

Officials—Tom Eades, Mike Kitts, Larry Scirotto.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com