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Villanova’s second-half surge lifts ‘Cats to 79-64 win over DePaul

They had us in the first half, not gonna lie.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at DePaul David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

No traps for Villanova on Saturday afternoon, but there was definitely a slow start.

The ‘Cats overcame a lackluster first half, one that was also riddled with fouls, and exploded in the second half to pull away and win, 79-64.

“They’re a good team, and that’s a good road win,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Freeman-Liberty is incredible, he was amazing. We really couldn’t stop him, physical as hell offensively, getting to the rim, taking it to us — he’s a real, physical, athletic guard. He can obviously shoot and make his free throws. He’s really good, but I was specifically proud of our guys playing on the road, having a rough first half. Everybody was in foul trouble, and Justin and Collin really held us together.”

Moore and Gillespie accounted for a majority of Villanova’s scoring, racking up a combined 49 points for the entire game and a total of 33 in the second half.

They both elevated their play in the second half and helped the Wildcats battle back from a 37-32 halftime deficit.

“There was no panic from us, we had been in those situations before,” Gillespie said. “We were in those situations (where we were behind) earlier this year like at Creighton, and we didn’t adjust well at halftime. Today, we adjusted better than we did before. A lot of credit to DePaul, they have great players. Freeman-Liberty is super dynamic, so he was playing really well. We just had to get back to playing Villanova Basketball.”

Villanova came out of the break as a revitalized team, rattling off a 20-6 run to open the second half. The Wildcats found ways to score on DePaul’s length, but on the other end of the court, it was intense on the defensive end. During that game-changing scoring spurt, DePaul had four of its six points off of free throws only.

“If I remember that run, on a few of those possessions, we blitzed Freeman-Liberty and got it out of his hands and got him out of his rhythm,” Wright said. “When a player like that gets going for a long time, it’s good, but then other guys aren’t touching the ball. Other guys got some shots, but they hadn’t really been involved in the offense. Not anybody’s fault, I’d do the same thing, but we got it out of his hands, but I think there were like six or seven possessions where we blitzed him, then we denied him, and other guys had to make plays.”

Javon Freeman-Liberty and the Blue Demons eventually had a few stretches late where it was able to string together some momentum, but they were unable to catch up. Nonetheless, it was an impressive showing for the DePaul standout, who racked up a game-high 34 points and six rebounds.

With the loss, DePaul drops to 9-5 overall and 0-4 in Big East play.

Meanwhile, the ‘Cats continue to roll, growing to 11-4 and 4-1 in conference play, including four-straight.

“We know there’s more work to do,” Gillespie said. “We need to have a growth mindset, come back tomorrow, get better, watch film. We know we can learn a lot from this game, get better, fix our mistakes and be better for the next day.”

Gillespie finished with a team-high 28 points, four rebounds and four assists. Moore had 21 points, seven boards, three assists and a steal. Caleb Daniels played in his first game back since getting his second COVID-19 diagnosis and chipped in 11 points off the bench.

“Big time,” said Wright of having Daniels back in the lineup. “(Brandon) Slater was hurt and he played injured. I’m really proud of him, because his ankle is really big, but it was really important to have (Daniels) back. He was great tonight.”

Villanova continues its road trip through the Midwest. The next stop for the Wildcats will be in the Cintas Center at Cincinnati, where they’ll have a rematch with the Xavier Musketeers. Tip-off is scheduled for Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. ET.