The madness is back — albeit in November — and in his first ever showdown with the Arizona State Sun Devils, Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats prevailed over their No. 18-ranked foes with a 83-74 victory in the 2K Empire Classic finals.
Until just a few days before the tournament, the hype for a potential championship matchup between No. 3 Villanova and No. 2 Baylor was palpable in group chats and Zoom calls around Nova Nation.
The conversation may have shifted when Baylor pulled out of the tournament, but the excitement about playing another AP Top 25 team certainly did not waver. As predicted, the game did not disappoint.
The scoring started as hot as anyone could have expected, with Villanova leading a fast moving Arizona State squad, 16-12, after five minutes of play, and it didn’t slow down from there.
The two teams traded blows fairly evenly throughout the first half with Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Jermaine Samuels carrying Villanova’s scoring in the face of Sun Devil standout tandem Josh Christopher and Alonzo Verge Jr.
“Obviously comfortable,” said Robinson-Earl, about how he and the team feel about their offense. “We worked on it a lot last year, and we got new players this year, so we’ve been really working hard in the practices that we’ve been able to have and we’ve just been really dialed in.”
The Wildcats finished the game with four players scoring in double figures, but just like it did against Boston College, the offense seemed to gravitate towards one man: Robinson-Earl.
The standout sophomore built off Wednesday’s performance with another solid showing, with 28 points and eight rebounds, showing why the expectations that shrouded the 6-foot-9 forward from Kansas were not unwarranted.
“I felt like that was a part of my game that I really needed to work on,” Robinson-Earl said of his mid range jump shot, which just didn’t seem to miss once he found his rhythm. “I spent a lot of time over the summer getting shots up and just being comfortable in all positions on the court.”
Aside from Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore provided a double-double effort in the win, chipping in 16 points and 12 rebounds. Caleb Daniels provided 14 points, five boards, and four assists. Collin Gillespie had 11 points, four rebounds, and four assists.
While the offensive side of the ball was firing for the Wildcats, it was the defense that took control of the game where it needed to most.
Coming off of 26 points and five assists the night before, Remy Martin was expected to be the go-to guy for the Sun Devils, but the Wildcats had different plans, holding Martin to a slim five points and two assists.
“He’s a great player,” Justin Moore said of Martin after the game. “But I feel like it was a team effort. It’s not just the person guarding him. It’s all of us being able to communicate, talk about where he’s at on the court.”
With Martin held in check, Christopher led with 28 points, four rebounds, and two assists. Verge had 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one steal and a block. Marcus Bagley added 10 points, four rebounds, and a couple of steals.
Despite their lead and impressive performance in the first 20 minutes, Villanova entered halftime struggling from behind the arc. The ‘Cats hit only 1-of-12 before the halftime buzzer and relied heavily on their dominant presence near the rim to secure the nine-point lead they had entering the locker room.
Once the threes started to drop after halftime (7-of-13) from beyond the arc, combined with Villanova’s hard-nosed demeanor on the glass, it was difficult for the Sun Devils to spur ahead.
In their first test of the year against a fellow top 25 ranked team, Villanova demonstrated its mettle. Moore was named to the All Tournament Team, and Robinson-Earl deservedly took home the honor of Tournament MVP.
Wright has reportedly expressed interest in getting another game at Mohegan Sun this weekend. If it can’t get another game in, the Wildcats will gear up for the start of Big 5 play with a showdown against the Saint Joseph’s Hawks. Tip-off is scheduled for Monday, at 5 p.m. ET.