NEW YORK -- Maalik Wayns isn't going to let Villanova's season end quietly.
The junior guard has his third straight strong game since returning from a knee injury, scoring 28 points as the Wildcats beat Rutgers 70-49 on Tuesday night in the first round of the Big East tournament.
"I think that's how we're definitely looking at it," Wayns said of the tournament at Madison Square Garden being a clean start for the team that uncharacteristically struggled through the regular season. "Anything can happen and we're good enough, we've got everybody back now, everybody has been practicing together. We had some great practices. ... If we keep playing the way we're playing and defending, everything takes care of itself."
The defense was smothering in the second half when the 14th-seeded Wildcats held Rutgers to 3-of-25 shooting from the field.
"Wow, that's a great defensive effort, it really is," Villanova coach Jay Wright said before adding that he finally has a team on the floor together that includes "our point guard, what's his name? Maalik Wayns."
Wayns continued his strong play since missing three games with a sprained MCL in his left knee. He returned for the final two games of the regular season and averaged 22 points and 6.5 assists. He had four assists for the Wildcats (13-18) on Tuesday as they advanced to face sixth-seeded South Florida in the second round on Wednesday. The Bulls beat the Wildcats 70-69 in last year's tournament.
"After I came back from my injury a lot of guys got going," Wayns said. "A lot of these guys had it going. They were playing great for those games and I just wanted to come back and just fit in and get those guys shots, find my shot within the offense."
The Wildcats had lost their first game in the last two Big East tournaments.
"This is probably the easiest Big East tournament I've played in since I've been here," Wayns said. "My freshman year we had a little action. Last year we were searching for a win, playing not to lose and tonight there was no pressure going in here."
Freshman Eli Carter had 23 points for the 11th-seeded Scarlet Knights (14-18), who lost 77-71 to Villanova on Feb. 28.
"Obviously, it's very hard to win a basketball game only scoring three field goals in the second half," Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. "We made some mental errors that led to their transition, led to their wide-open looks in the paint and it just snowballed from there.
"A young team might have not responded as well as I would have liked, but these things happen. Learn from it. Hopefully use that as motivation in the spring and summer to improve, to get stronger, to maybe be able to finish some of the shots down in the paint. But that's life when you have a very young basketball team."
Rutgers made five 3-pointers in as many attempts and added a traditional three-point play in an 18-2 run that gave the Scarlet Knights a 34-26 lead with 2 minutes left in the first half. The Wildcats scored the last four points of the half to get within 34-30 and then opened the second half on a 12-2 run to go up 42-36 with 14:43 to play.
Villanova, which had lost five of its last six and eight of 10, made it a rout by holding Rutgers to one field goal over the final 8 minutes. Wayns, who was 13 of 14 from the free throw line, scored eight points over the final 4:13.
"There was a ton of missed layups and opportunities. The execution wasn't there," Rice said. "We didn't execute like we did the first half for some odd reason.
"Maalik Wayns just kept the pressure on and made all the right moves."
The Wildcats outscored Rutgers 40-15 in the second half, holding the Scarlet Knights to 3-of-25 shooting from the field. Rutgers was 16 of 55 for the game (29.1 percent).
Villanova shot 45.8 percent (22 of 48) and finished with a 43-29 rebound advantage, with Mouphtaou Yarou grabbing 12 to go with 13 points.
"As a team we try to focus on defense," Yarou said. "We know we can score. We try to stop people. We try to rebound the ball better and focus."
Mack started the 3-point barrage for the Scarlet Knights, Miller hit one and then Carter made three straight before Miller was fouled on a putback and added the free throw. Rutgers was 7 of 11 on 3s in the half but was just 6 of 19 on 2-point shots.
Rutgers, which had won two of three after six straight losses, was 1 of 7 from beyond the arc in the second half.
Villanova leads the all-time series with Rutgers 28-9 and has won five of the last six meetings.