The red-hot Bulldogs gave it all they had in gunning for the upset in front of a sellout home crowd, but in the end, the evening belonged to the Wildcats' Darrun Hilliard II.
The senior guard poured in a career-high 31 points to give Villanova one of its biggest wins of the year. Hilliard made eight three-pointers, including the game-winner with 1.5 seconds left after he was inexplicably left open. Cool and collected despite committing a key turnover seconds before, the senior buried the shot to silence a raucous Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first time all evening.
Butler had one last chance to send the game to overtime, and head coach Chris Holtmann drew up a play that got Kelan Martin a clean look at tying the game. But Martin's shot went wide left, leaving Hilliard as the night's hero.
Both teams entered Saturday having won five straight games, and with Villanova holding just a one-game edge on Butler in the Big East standings, the implications for the game were clear. The Bulldogs had already fell to the Wildcats on the road in December, and Saturday's game was their last chance to add another statement win to their NCAA tournament resume.
The game got off to a slow start, with Villanova leading 11-10 nearly 13 minutes in before things started to heat up. Just as the Wildcats looked like they were beginning to take control heading into halftime, Alex Barlow made a three to cut the deficit to 27-22 at the break.
Butler then turned the tables at the start of the second half, building a 39-34 lead and firing up the home crowd on another Barlow three. The lead never grew to more than five, and Villanova eventually swung it back the other way before a seesaw battle ensued down to the wire.
Another Barlow three made it 63-62 Butler with 2:39 remaining, and a minute and a half later Hilliard duped Barlow into fouling him from deep. The senior drained all three free throws, and the Bulldogs needed a Roosevelt Jones layup to tie things up with 17 seconds remaining.
It was just enough time for the Wildcats to set up Hilliard's game-winning three, capping the senior's career night. He also added eight rebounds, three assists and two steals, shooting 8 for 12 from behind the arc.
A loss would have dented Villanova's pursuit of a No. 1 seed, but instead its resume becomes that much stronger by leaving Hinkle unscathed. The Wildcats now stand at 23-2 on the season, with only a Feb. 28 matchup at Xavier left as their last real road test on the schedule. Villanova's 20-point blowout loss at Georgetown in January seems further and further in the rear-view mirror, and this is a team that controls its destiny for the Big East title.