Nine years later--almost to the exact date of the last Villanova Wildcats-Saint Mary’s Gaels NCAA Tournament meeting--the Wildcats were able to prevent history from repeating itself.
The 11th-seeded Gaels made it no easy task, however, but the No. 6-seed Wildcats managed to hold them off in the closing minutes of the game, surviving and advancing with a 61-57 win.
Villanova trailed by two at halftime, with a deep Malik Fitts jumper giving Saint Mary’s the slight edge heading into the half.
“We weren’t doing that bad actually—it was more they were playing very well, and we were trying to match how they were bringing it,” Villanova’s Phil Booth said. “I think we just had to take it to another level because they were playing at a high level. I don’t think we weren’t doing that much wrong. It was more credit to good St. Mary’s was playing and we had to match that level.”
After the break, the Wildcats played with renewed focus and intensity, especially on the defensive end. A series of scoring plays by Phil Booth allowed for Villanova to take the lead, until Saint Mary’s responded with a deep Jordan Ford three to tie things up at 33.
From there, the Wildcats came firing back with a 7-0 run to break the tie, a spurt sparked by a Jermaine Samuels block on Ford, which sent the ball flying off the backboard. Villanova immediately got a Saddiq Bey corner three after collecting the blocked shot, before finishing off the run with a Samuels one-hand slam in transition, which prompted a Saint Mary’s time out.
The Gaels fought persistently, but couldn’t retake the lead, as the Wildcats rode the momentum from that run and made the necessary plays to keep their foes at bay.
“I feel like we picked it up,” Paschall said of the defensive effort and communication. “We did a good job just playing together, and knowing that we’re on the other side [on the floor], not in front of our bench talking a lot more. We should have talked like that in the first half, also just communicating, playing team defense. I felt that’s what we really did and felt like we did a good job of that.”
Phil Booth led Villanova with 20 points and six assists. Eric Paschall had 14 points and six rebounds. Samuels finished with 12 points and seven rebounds.
For Saint Mary’s, Ford and Fitts led the Gaels with 13 points apiece.
“Man, are they good, it’s so impressive to play against them,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said of the Gaels. “How disciplined, how well coached, how they execute—everything we try to do defensively, they’ve got an answer for. They’re really good. That team just beat the number one team in the country pretty handily. It was no surprise it was that difficult of a game, we give them a lot of credit.”
Villanova grabbed a quick lead from opening tip-off, after a perfect 3-for-3 start on the floor. However, the Wildcats went cold, only making one of their next eight shots, as Saint Mary’s settled into the game.
It quickly became a back-and-forth contest, with both teams trading the lead all-throughout the first half.
Once Villanova claimed the lead after that 7-0 scoring spurt, it never gave it away, but Saint Mary’s kept pushing until the final buzzer.
Just when it seemed like a Samuels dunk with 1:03 remaining—which made it 61-53—would be the dagger, the Gaels started to push the tempo and got two quick baskets from Ford and Fitts, which trimmed the lead down to four.
After an offensive foul on Booth during an inbounds play resulted in a turnover, the Gaels had an opportunity to cut into the lead some more. Unfortunately for Saint Mary’s, it never scored again for the rest of the game.
“They’ve been in a lot of tight games all year,” Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett said of Villanova’s experience in late-game situations and NCAA Tournaments. “We watched the last six, seven games. Seems like every one of them but one was down the wire. So they’re used to playing that, and what you mentioned is definitely an advantage. They played six games in the NCAA Tournament. I think both of those guys played two National Championship teams and Gillespie was there last year. Just knowing what the tournament’s like, knowing what it feels like to play under one-and-done pressure situation.”
Villanova will take on the winner of No. 3 Purdue and No. 14 Old Dominion on Saturday.