It was a warmer than usual late-January morning outside the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia as the Nova Nation anxiously awaited the news they have been wishing for all season long. The parking lots were filled with spirited fans and friends alike intermingling with the overlapping Philadelphia Eagles fans. The combination of the two fan bases made for a truly unique game day experience for Villanova students and created an atmosphere like no other.
Then, it happened.
About an hour and a half before the game tipped off, a tweet from CBS insider Jon Rothstein broke the news everyone had been waiting for. Justin Moore is back.
“I felt good,” said Justin Moore on his debut. “Of course, I haven’t played in ten months so I have to get back into rhythm and stuff, but it was just great to be out there with the guys and compete.”
Moore’s presence was immediately felt, but unfortunately, the Providence Friars spoiled his season debut and big return by downing the ‘Cats in a thrilling 70-65 game that came down to the wire.
“I thought he looked good, but you know, but again he said he hasn’t played in a long time,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said. “The thing he brings more than anything is another leader out there who has been through a lot of battles.”
Providence’s preseason first team all conference guard, Jared Bynum, went on his own 8-0 run midway through the second half. He took over late and was crucial in helping the Friars close it out, also hitting a turnaround jumper in the closing seconds to pad their lead.
“He’s just a tough player,” said Neptune of Jared Bynum. “I think the thing just offensively is he makes some really tough shots.”
After missing their first eleven threes of the game, the Friars made six threes down the stretch which was enough to give them a four-point cushion with 2:44 to go in regulation.
“They made some tough ones off the dribble, they’re a good team, they’re not just going to lay down for you so you got to go out and execute and get stops,” Neptune said. Unfortunately, they were able to make some tough shots.”
A Cam Whitmore three with 1:33 to go cut the Providence lead down to just one, but that was as close as Villanova would get as the Friars were able to successfully close the game out.
Early on, the Wildcats rode the momentum of Moore’s debut and connected on five of their first seven shots from the field and opened an early 11-6 advantage over Providence. The Friars would counter Villanova’s run with one of their own, a 14-6 run over the next 9:41 of game time, that put the Wildcats at in a 20-17 hole with just over six and a half minutes to go in the first half.
“It was great to be out there with my teammates,” said Moore. “They were excited for me, I was excited, but I really just wanted to focus on coming in and playing harder than the other team.”
Villanova would respond with a 14-8 run of their own and end the first half up 31-28.
The second half started with a sense of urgency from the Friars, as they opened up a lead as large as four just before the first media timeout of the second half. When the offense looked stagnant for the Wildcats and getting the ball in bounds became a tall task, Villanova turned to freshman point guard Mark Armstrong for a spark and he delivered, making his presence known on the back and forth battle.
The Wildcats had four scorers in double figures, led by freshman Cam Whitmore’s 21-point, nine-rebound outing. Additionally, Eric Dixon posted 14 points, while Brandon Slater and Caleb Daniels both had 10 points each.
When asked how much the floor opens up now that Moore is back, freshman Cam Whitmore said, “[it opens up] a lot. He’s the main point guard so he gets everyone in their spots.”
Whitmore seemed to be one of the main beneficiaries of Justin Moore’s return, and he was very complimentary of the senior leader, saying: “Just leadership, that’s really it. On and off the floor he leads the guys, brings everybody together, he’s like the glue of the team.”
For the Friars, Jared Bynum scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half alone, and didn’t miss a single shot after halftime. Ed Croswell chipped in 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Bryce Hopkins added 13 points and nine rebounds. Devin Carter added 12 points, six boards and three assists.