Villanova won its Senior Night game without its star senior player.
After an injury to Collin Gillespie in the first half, the Villanova Wildcats rallied together to beat Creighton Bluejays, 72-60, to secure the Big East regular-season title at the Finneran Pavilion Wednesday night.
Villanova pulled ahead late in the first half and hung on for a win, achieved by Justin Moore with 24 points with five rebounds and five assists. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl contributed 14 points with 14 rebounds and five assists. Brandon Slater put up 11 points and five rebounds.
While the ‘Cats had as much as a 22-point lead at one point in the second half, Creighton came back with furious rally make it as close as a five-point game, after Villanova went over eight minutes without scoring. However, the ‘Cats settled down and maintained the lead.
“The one thing about that [eight-minute stretch] was that we need to learn you’ve got to hang in there defensively,” said head coach Jay Wright. “That’s what we didn’t do against Butler and that’s been our inconsistency this year is putting together those stretched defensively.”
It started off as a back-and-forth matchup, until around the 10-minute mark when ‘Nova began to push its lead into double figures. Here, Creighton began to crumble offensively, going 9-of-31 (29%) in the first half, which Vilanova capitalized on. The Bluejays never held a lead after the ‘Cats took it from them early in the first half.
“Obviously, we made shots but that wasn’t the key, I think defensively we were really much more connected,” said Wright of the biggest difference between Wednesday night and the Wildcats’ previous matchup.
Collin Gillespie went down with a left knee injury with six minutes left in the first half. Jermaine Samuels immediately followed this with a big dunk to rally energy from the rest of the team. The players stepped up around this and built momentum to pull away for the rest of the half.
This was a scary moment for fans, and the ‘Cats success largely comes from their star point guard, who sat out for the rest of the game.
“Our trainer said it looks pretty serious,” Wright said of the Gillespie injury. “We can’t say what it is. We’re getting a MRI tomorrow morning, but he said it’s pretty serious, there’s no chance he comes back second half. But I’ll be honest with you, he’s not saying he’ll be fine.”
However, players like Brandon Slater, Jermaine Samuels, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl came in to fill in for Gillespie’s usual leadership.
‘No one has had as much impact on a team in a year as Colin does here,” said Wright. “He’s our spiritual leader, work ethic he’s our leader. He’s tough to replace. We’re going to have to grow up real quick and guys are going to have to step up and I think they will.”
Robinson-Earl was one of the guys who stepped up Wednesday night, filling in as point guard, which Wright was very comfortable with, as he is slotted to take over Gillespie’s position next year.
“When we see something as devastating as that happens we know that we need to go out there and play for [Gillespie],” Robinson-Earl said.
Gillespie’s injury is even harder considering he is a senior and valued leader and teammate for Villanova.
“He’s had an incredible senior year, he’s our leader,” said Wright. “I know he missed the NCAA tournament last year and he’s looking to have a big-time tournament.”
This was an exciting rematch for Villanova’s senior night. This was the second meeting between the Wildcats and the Bluejays after Villanova suffered an 86-70 loss on February 13th in Nebraska.
“[Last game] we got into just individually guarding their three-point shooters, we feared their three so much. We played much better team defense tonight,” said Wright.
Damien Jefferson had 13 points and eight rebounds for the Bluejays. Mitch Ballock put up 14 points.
With this win, Villanova secures the Big East title for the seventh time in eight years and has set itself up better for the NCAA tournament.
The ‘Cats improve to 16-4 overall, and 11-3 in Big East play. They will look to continue their momentum and finish regular season play at Providence on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.