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Villanova junior Hilliard rewarded for staying with it

His freshman year, Darrun Hilliard thought about leaving Villanova.

The junior guard described that first year of college as a whirlwind and he wasn’t sure he fit in with the level of the Wildcats.

Hilliard stayed and on Thursday night he led the team in scoring as Villanova earned a 73-53 second-round NCAA Tournament win over Milwaukee at First Niagara Center.

“My freshman year was kinda like a whirlwind,” said Hilliard, who finished with 16 points. “I was a kid getting used to everything and coming into a man’s game, I guess. It was just too much for me to handle.”

Hilliard sparked the Villanova offense with seven straight points in the first half to stifle Milwaukee’s early attack.

“It was huge,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They’re a very, very good defensive team, they really are. They will give you a shot you think is open, but then they’re right on you. They keep it packed in. Darrun was the only guy who could get through their initial defense. He hit some tough shots in the lane. That was big for us. We were really struggling, and he got us going.”

Milwaukee jumped out to a five-point lead early on and Hilliard was able to start finding lanes to spark an 11-2 run to end the half.

It started with a layup with 4:30 left in the first half to cut the lead to 21-18. He then hit two free throws to make it 23-20 with 3:12 left, then converted a traditional three-point play to tie the game, 23-23.

Villanova never trailed after that.

“I was just trying to be aggressive and make plays for myself and my teammates,” Hilliard said. “I was seeing lanes I could take and I was able to finish. I was just trying to make plans out there.”

Hilliard finished 6 of 11 from the floor with one three-pointer while hitting all three of his free throws.

But the game, the points, the NCAA Tournament win was just another step in the process for the junior guard.

Hilliard averaged 4.8 points as a freshman and 11.4 points as a sophomore.

This year, he’s averaged 14.3 points and 3.7 rebounds.

And his 16 points in the NCAA Tournament? All that matters is that he’s got another game.

“This game, it was just another game to me,” Hilliard said. “It’s the NCAA Tournament and a great event, but I was just looking at it as another game and a chance to play better and get better.”