Villanova Wildcats

Unlikely name provides energy 'Nova needs in rout

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Unlikely name provides energy 'Nova needs in rout

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Even as Villanova remains atop the national rankings and barrels toward its fifth straight Big East regular-season championship, a dark cloud of sorts has been hovering above the Wildcats for the last week.

Can the No. 1 Wildcats keep winning without Phil Booth, who was sidelined last Wednesday with a fractured bone in his right hand? How nervous should Villanova fans be about Booth’s status heading into March as the star senior guard has been ruled out “indefinitely” but could return toward the end of the regular season or the Big East Tournament?

Enter Collin Gillespie, who’s trying to make ‘Nova Nation breathe a little easier.

On Thursday against Creighton — Villanova’s second game with Booth sidelined — the freshman guard had eight points and five assists in 23 minutes to help the Wildcats cruise to a 98-78 shellacking of the Bluejays at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations).

“He brought the energy,” said junior Mikal Bridges, who led all scorers with 21 points. “I told him during the game, in the first half, we were playing off him. He’s the one who came in here and brought all that energy. He played his tail off today. We’re gonna need him for the rest of the season.”

Gillespie, a high school star at nearby Archbishop Wood, had showed flashes of potential early in his freshman campaign before a hand injury of his own sidelined him in mid-December. After missing eight straight games, he returned a little more than a month later but scored only eight total points over the last four contests before Thursday’s timely performance.

“Against a team like [Creighton], you need more perimeter guys than you need big guys,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “So his play tonight was going to be really important going into the game, and I thought when he came in in the first half, he really sparked us.”

While Gillespie’s final stat line may not jump out at you, Wright mentioned the freshman doing little things like taking a charge, effectively distributing the ball and, yes, bringing a lot of energy.

That’s something Gillespie has prided himself on throughout the season, whether it was earlier in the campaign when he was a deeper reserve or now that he’s the first guy off the bench with former sixth man Donte DiVincenzo having taken Booth’s place in the starting lineup.

“I think it’s the same as when I was the seventh or eighth man; just coming in and bringing energy for the team,” Wright said. “Now that Donte is in the starting lineup, it doesn’t really change. I have to keep bringing energy and doing the little things for the team to be successful.” 

Indeed, Gillespie may very well blossom into a Villanova star down the road. But for now, even with Booth injured, he knows his job is to be a role player and help set up Jalen Brunson, Bridges and DiVincenzo for success.

Against the Bluejays, the trio of starting guards accounted for 57 points and 13 assists with Brunson in particular drawing enormous praise from the opposing side — as he usually does.

“I’m not in the NBA but if I was, I would want that guy on my team,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said. “He impacts the game in so many ways. If you need him to score, he’ll score. If you need him to distribute, he distributes. He’s got toughness. He’s got moxie. His leadership skills appear to be off the charts. That offense, with the ball in his hands, is really hard to guard.”

Albeit in more modest terms, McDermott also praised Gillespie and fellow freshman reserve Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a 6-foot-9 forward from Philly.

“Both of those guys come in and just do your job,” the Creighton coach said. “On Jay’s teams, that is, in my opinion, their trademark. They have a lot of guys who have a role and they really execute that role at a high level.” 

Like Gillespie, Cosby-Roundtree has also seen his role elevated because of Booth’s injury, becoming the seventh man in what’s been a tight seven-man rotation. And he too responded in a big way, registering six points and six rebounds, three of which were on the offensive end of the floor.

“The next guy who sparked us was Dhamir,” Wright said. “He had a big offensive rebound early when it was tight, got us an extra possession. Defensively, his ability to guard on the perimeter is becoming an asset for us. He’s really come on and gets better every game. I’m really proud of him.”

Time will tell, of course, when Booth is able to return as ’Nova prepares to make a run at the Final Four and a national championship. But even when he does, the two freshmen — along with redshirt freshman Omari Spellman, who finished with 14 points against Creighton — will almost certainly continue to be important factors.

And for Gillespie, he couldn’t ask for anything more in his first season of college basketball.

“It’s really special,” the Warminster native said. “Being so close to home, my family gets to see me. Just playing for this program is special. It’s been a lot of fun. And it’s just trying to build every day, get better every day.”

Up-and-down week has Villanova steady in AP poll

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Up-and-down week has Villanova steady in AP poll

For the second week in a row, Jay Wright's Villanova squad endured a stunning upset and then followed it up with a statement victory.

And for the second week in a row, the Wildcats held steady in the AP Poll.

After falling 76-71 at Providence on Valentine's Day and then forcefully handling No. 4 Xavier 95-79 in enemy territory on Saturday, Villanova checks in at No. 3 in the AP Poll for the second straight week. This after the 'Cats spent the five weeks prior sitting pretty as the No. 1 team in the land.

The commanding victory at Xavier wasn't enough to propel Villanova ahead of No. 1 Virginia and No. 2 Michigan State. The Cavaliers received 42 first-place votes and the Spartans received 19 first-place votes. The Wildcats garnered four first-place votes for themselves.

Xavier held firm at No. 4 and Duke checked in at No. 5 to round out this week's top five.

March is looming and that means the Big East grind is winding down. The Wildcats, 11-3 in conference play and sitting in second place in the Big East behind 12-3 Xavier, own the tiebreaker over the Musketeers after Saturday's win. They have four regular-season contests left, starting with a home date vs. DePaul on Wednesday night. This week ends with a trip to Creighton on Saturday afternoon.

Take care of business and once again it looks like the Big East goes through Villanova, which has won the last four Big East regular-season titles.

Bridges leads Villanova to massive road win over fellow top-5 team

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Bridges leads Villanova to massive road win over fellow top-5 team

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CINCINNATI — With the Big East's bragging rights at stake, Villanova showed it's not ready to relinquish its reign.

Mikal Bridges led an early 3-point shooting spurt that put Villanova in control, and the third-ranked Wildcats beat No. 4 Xavier 95-79 on Saturday in a showdown for control of the league.

As it has nearly every time, this one went to `Nova.

The Wildcats (24-3, 11-3) have won all four regular-season titles since the league was reconfigured. Xavier (24-4, 12-3) had a chance to take control of the race, but simply wasn't up to the Wildcats' level in the biggest game of the season.

Now, Xavier's lead is down to a half-game and Villanova has swept the head-to-head series.

"I think we wanted to send ourselves a message, not necessarily about the title race but about playing Villanova basketball," said Dante DiVincenzo, who finished with 21 points. "We knew we weren't playing Villanova basketball."

Bridges scored 25 points in a balanced attack that got the best of a matchup between the league's top offenses. Trevon Bluiett had 26 points for Xavier, which had its nine-game winning streak snapped. Villanova made a season-high 16 3-pointers, the most ever by a Xavier opponent.

"They hit a lot of tough 3s, but we've just got to play tougher," said Xavier's Naji Marshall, who had 11 points. "When you play elite teams, there's little margin for error."

The Wildcats ended their three-game shooting slump by making 11 3s in the first half, when they pulled out to a 19-point lead and silenced a raucous crowd at the Cintas Center, where Xavier had been undefeated this season.

"We came out together and played harder than we usually do," Bridges said. "We've got to keep that up. We can't settle. We can't relax."

Bluiett led a second-half surge that cut it to 64-61 with 11 minutes left before Bridges' basket blunted the comeback. Xavier had a pair of turnovers, and DiVincenzo hit back-to-back 3s as the Wildcats rebuilt their lead to double digits and pulled away.

"When they shoot the ball the way they did today, it will take a monumental effort to beat them," Xavier coach Chris Mack said.

In the end, it was like the last four games between the league's heavyweights. Villanova has won 10 of 11 against Xavier in the Big East, the last four by margins of 25, 22, 24 and 16 points. Xavier hadn't lost since an 89-65 defeat at Villanova on Jan. 10.

Big picture
Villanova: The Wildcats rely on their 3-point shooting but had been in a slump the last three games, going 17 of 71 from beyond the arc. They had their worst game of the season during a 76-71 loss at Providence , going 3 of 20. Villanova went 11 of 19 from beyond the arc in the first half on Saturday. After missing their first seven 3-point tries in the second half, they found their mark and pulled away, finishing 16 of 34.

Xavier: The Musketeers came out overly aggressive -- three fouls in the first 26 seconds -- and missed eight of their first 12 shots, including several layups. They've had bad first halves in their last four games against the Wildcats, leading to the double-digit losses.

"We were excited playing `Nova in our gym," Marshall said. "I think we came out a little too excited."

Big win
It was the second-largest win by Villanova against a Top-5 team under coach Jay Wright, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Getting heated
Villanova's Omari Spellman and Xavier's Paul Scruggs got technical fouls for yelling at each other during the Musketeers' comeback in the second half. The two had to be separated.

Big matchup
It was only the second time in the Cintas Center's 18-year history that a pair of Top 5 teams faced off. The other time resulted in Xavier's only win over Villanova in Big East play. The No. 5 Musketeers beat the No. 1 Wildcats 90-83 on Feb. 24, 2016.

Moving up
Bluiett surpassed David West for second place on Xavier's career scoring list with 2,140 points.

Up next
Villanova: Wildcats host DePaul on Wednesday, followed by games at Creighton and Seton Hall before finishing at home against Georgetown.

Xavier: Musketeers play at Georgetown on Wednesday. They beat the Hoyas in overtime 96-91 at the Cintas Center on Feb. 3. They finish at home against Providence -- one of the teams that beat them -- and at DePaul.