The Villanova Wildcats returned to action Tuesday night for the first time in almost a month and kept up their win-streak, grinding out a tough victory against the Seton Hall Pirates, 76-74.
This was the first game back for the ‘Cats after head coach Jay Wright tested positive for COVID-19, and two players later tested positive on January 4.
“We’ve never been through this before - no one takes weeks off in the middle of the season,” Coach Wright said after the game. “I was going to be calm and patient with the guys, which I’m normally not.”
Their last game was on December 23 — a 17-point win at Marquette, which saw Collin Gillespie leading the way with 22 points. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl leads the team with an average of 16.2 points per game, with Gillespie right on his trail at 15.3 points per game.
Jermaine Samuels was only cleared to play barely 24 hours prior to tip-off, and only practiced with the team once.
“As soon as I found out I was cleared, I was excited to take the floor and contribute anyway I could,” Samuels said after the game.
The ‘Cats got started right away with a three-pointer from Collin Gillespie just seconds after the opening tip, and Villanova stuck with their trend of looking to take shots from behind the arc. Seton Hall joined the trend, as the teams combined for 7 three-pointers in the first few minutes of the game. Both teams were able to effectively move the ball and find open shots as their defenses looked to settle in.
“We’re just getting our legs under us again after a few weeks off — the layoff is new and unexpected for everyone,” Collin Gillespie mentioned after the game. “It’s hard to emulate what game conditions are like during that break.”
Cole Swider contributed to the scoring in the first half of action, quickly surpassing his average of 7.2 points per game. Both teams continued to score at ease, and Seton Hall maintained a perfect shooting percentage from behind the arc well into the first half of the game. Jared Rhoden made up the majority of the early scoring for the Pirates, and Sandro Mamukelashvili contributed on the inside as well.
The Pirates were able to put together a good stretch of defensive stops, and the ‘Cats were held to only a few free-throws while the Pirates took the lead with just over five minutes left in the first half. Gillespie broke Villanova’s nearly six minute streak without a basket with just under three points remaining in the first half. A three-pointer from Jermaine Samuels tied the game at 33, and Brandon Slater drained another three-pointer on the next possession to give Villanova the lead again. Two free-throws from Samuels at the end of the half gave Villanova a 38-35 lead at the end of the first half.
The ‘Cats had a well-rounded scoring attack in the first half, with Gillespie logging 10 points, Samuels with 9 points, and Swider with 8 points. As a team they shot 46.4% from the field, but went 7-12 from behind the arc. The scoring for the Pirates was dominated by Rhoden and Mamukelashvili, combining for 28 of Seton Hall’s 35 first-half points.
Justin Moore had a relatively quiet first half but got involved in the scoring early in the second half. Both teams had trouble finding easy baskets in the second half, and the three-point percentage dropped significantly. Mamukelashvili continued his scoring, including a few from behind the arc.
Villanova was able to string together a few really good possessions to push the lead to 9 points with 7:21 remaining in the game, but the Pirates were able hang on and keep them from pushing the lead any further. A hot shooting night for Samuels continued, adding a key basket that pushed the Villanova lead back to 6 points with only a few minutes remaining. Seton Hall converted two free-throws and grabbed a layup in transition to pull the game within 2 points with 2:23 left, forcing a timeout from Villanova. Gillespie made two big free-throws to give the ‘Cats a lead, but it was squandered after a nice pass from Mamukelashvili to Takal Molson for a layup.
Gillespie missed a three-pointer with 34 seconds remaining, giving Seton Hall a chance to win. Reynolds missed a three-pointer and a foul was called on Seton Hall in the ensuing scramble for the rebound, sending Cole Swider to the line with a chance to give Villanova the lead with 1.9 seconds remaining in the game. He missed the first but converted the second, giving the ‘Cats a 75-74 lead and Seton Hall a prayer to win. Mamukelashvili could fumbled the full-court pass out of bounds, and Villanova was able to ice the game after Robinson-Earl converted a free-throw.
“It was great to get a win, really happy for our guys. Seton Hall obviously a really good team and happy that we survived. They were wearing us down towards the end there, if that went into overtime we probably would have been in a lot of trouble,” Coach added.
Jermaine Samuels finished with a season high 20 points (7-11 from the field), and grabbed 9 rebounds as well. Coach Wright had lots of praise for him after the game: “He literally practiced one day, he had covid and only practiced yesterday. I was really impressed with his performance tonight.”
Gillespie scored 22 points and went a perfect 8-8 from the free-throw line. The teams were fairly even in the paint, with Seton Hall owning a slight advantage on the rebound margin and points in the paint.
“I was really proud of them,” Coach Wright said after the game. “They gutted it out against a really good Seton Hall team.”
“It was a big attitude game for us, they made tough shots down the stretch and we had to get back on defense to make stops, it was a real grind it out game,” Collin Gillespie added.
The Wildcats return to action for a Saturday game against the Providence Friars (7-6) at 8:00 p.m. ET.