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‘Cats Edge Musketeers in Conference Opener, 68-62

24 points from Gillespie fuel ‘Nova past Marshall and Xavier

Xavier v Villanova Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Monday night, Villanova returned to the court for the start of Big East play against the Xavier Musketeers. Against a capable and experienced Xavier team, this game marked the beginning of both the Wildcats’ defense of its most recent conference title, and the final game of 2019.

A strong start made it look like it might become a blowout early, but ended up tight into the latter minutes of the second half, where the Wildcats would pull away and emerge victorious, 68-62.

In the first half, it seemed the Wildcats were going to use a similar formula to victory as they did against Kansas: ride a suffocating defensive effort to success in spite of a sputtering offensive one. In that first half – despite a stretch where they outscored their opponents 17-0 – the ‘Cats actually shot a lower percentage(38.9%) than the Musketeers(41.4%). However, their three triples to Xavier’s zero helped them to their 32-25 halftime lead.

In the second half, however, both offenses picked up. The Musketeers (51.7%) again shot a better percentage than the Wildcats (42.3%), and although they outscored the ‘Cats — in this period, their failure to make a single three-pointer until there was less than a minute in the contest doomed their comeback bid.

Despite Xavier’s lack of shooting from deep, at times the completion of their comeback was only a matter of time due to the performance of junior duo Naji Marshall (19 PTS) and Paul Scruggs (12 PTS, 6 ASTS). Marshall at times seemed able to get to the rim at will, and Scruggs’ capable scoring was overshadowed by his pinpoint playmaking.

Fortunately for Villanova, the ‘Cats own junior duo stepped up to make the difference to keep the Musketeers at bay. Collin Gillespie (24 PTS, 5 ASTS, 4 RBDS) and Jermaine Samuels (14 PTS, 8 RBDS) continued to demonstrate the value of their maturity and comfort within Jay Wright’s system Monday night, not only in how they performed overall but also in how they were able to make plays as Xavier was closing the gap between the two teams down the stretch. Justin Moore also continued to establish himself as a reliable option with maturity beyond his years with 13 points.

Although they failed to make an impact via scoring the ball, Saddiq Bey (six) Brandon Slater (five), and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (four) made an impact on the boards. Robinson-Earl and Bey both had three assists.

Moving forward, the Wildcats will continue their defense of their Big East titles on Saturday in Milwaukee against the Marquette Golden Eagles. Tip-off is at 2:00 PM EST on FOX. Happy New Year, everybody!