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Samuels and Slater shine against UConn, lead Villanova to 63-60 semifinal win

UConn dared Jermaine Samuels and Brandon Slater to shoot, and so, they did.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Villanova vs Connecticut Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After splitting the season series with UConn, Villanova won a thriller at Madison Square Garden, 63-60, to advance to the Big East Tournament championship game.

Once again, it came down to the final seconds for the game to be decided, as Collin Gillespie went one-for-two from the free-throw line to make it 63-60 for Villanova with three seconds remaining.

With no timeouts left, UConn rebounded Gillespie’s rare free-throw miss, yet had to resort to a half-court heave that was off the mark.

For Gillespie, who was injured during last year’s Big East Tournament, having the opportunity to ice a monumental game was special.

“It means a lot,” said Gillespie. “That’s part of the reason why I came back, not being able to experience [the Big East Tournament] the last two years. And it’s just so much fun to be out there with my teammates and my coaches. And we really just enjoy it, and enjoy the time together.”

Despite having zero made shots in the final five minutes of the game, ‘Nova took care of the ball late and ran the right amount of clock out to prevent a lengthy final possession for UConn.

“It was one of those games where I kind of felt like who had the ball last [could win],” said Wright. “We never felt like we had them under control. Sanogo was so tough inside, but if you put too much pressure on him, Martin is hitting a three and Cole is making plays.”

The back-and-forth matchup never featured a double-digit lead and had less than 15 total turnovers. But what broke the tie in Villanova’s favor was, again, stellar play from upperclassmen.

Jermaine Samuels had a double-double performance to lead the way, with 21 points and 12 rebounds, in spite of reported back spasms that kept him out of the starting lineup last night.

Wright, who knew all about Samuels’ injury, was in awe of his gritty performance.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Wright. “We got a chiropractor up here from Philly that got here at like 4 o’clock. We have a masseuse with us. He couldn’t go through walk-through. Couldn’t stand long enough to go through it.”

“I’m amazed at him. But once he gets going — he’s done this in his career with injuries. He played with a broken finger last year. Had surgery. Missed the whole summer, had surgery. He’s a tough kid and a great competitor.”

Senior Brandon Slater was also critical for ‘Nova in the win, as he had 15 points, four rebounds, and one huge block down the stretch.

After a loose ball bounced around at half-court and landed perfectly in the hands of UConn’s Tyrese Martin, a wide-open basket seemed inevitable for the Huskies.

However, quickly covering ground was Slater, who pinned Martin’s dunk attempt against the glass with 4:30 remaining and kept Villanova’s lead at 60-53. The Wildcats would hold the lead from there.

In the loss, UConn senior Tyrese Martin had 19 points and seven rebounds. His impressive shooting performance, the Huskies’ dominance on the offensive glass, and poor shooting performances from Villanova’s Gillespie and Justin Moore gave UConn ample opportunity to take the game. However, to the dismay of UConn head coach Danny Hurley, the Huskies could not capitalize on these advantages.

“If you said to me going into the game that we would hold Gillespie to five points on only five shot attempts, Moore to six points on 3-for-9 shooting, and Daniels to 2-for-10, I’d probably say how many did we win by,” said Hurley.

It wasn’t all bad for Gillespie though. While it was a quiet scoring night, he racked up 10 assists and only turned it over once.

Adama Sanogo also had a solid showing for UConn, earning a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds. Although knocked out of the Big East Tournament, the Huskies will undoubtedly win an at-large bid and return to March Madness.

In front of what will most likely be a sold-out Madison Square Garden, Villanova will play the Creighton Bluejays on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in the Big East Tournament finals.

Wright and the rest of his squad are prepared for an electric atmosphere in the weekend finale.

“This rivals the NCAA Tournament,” said Wright. “We talk about it as coaches in our league. What’s better: Sweet 16, playing in the Garden on Friday night, or winning a Big East championship?”

“There’s no atmosphere like this anywhere in the world for basketball. The juice in there–you can feel it when you come out. And the electricity, it’s incredible. We’re so blessed to be a part of it. And I’ll never forget the games that you play in here. This is an awesome atmosphere.”