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.”

Villanova's buzzer-beating win over Georgetown in 1999 was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

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Villanova's buzzer-beating win over Georgetown in 1999 was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

January 30th 1999.  I was a 15-year-old who wondered how the Phillies would build around Scott Rolen, marveled at Lindros and LeClair’s 40 goal seasons, happy to have Iverson back after a lockout and was suspicious about some guy named ‘Reid’ the Eagles just hired.  

In the midst of all this, my best bud, Ryan Bennett and his family, scored tickets to Villanova vs. Georgetown at the now Wells Fargo Center for a Saturday noon tipoff and they were kind enough to invite me along.  

I remember Ryan and I had a CYO High School basketball game that night in Lansdale at 7 p.m.

“No problem, plenty of time”, we thought. 

The Bennett’s picked me up at that morning and off we went to what would be the best game I ever saw... 

Our seats were in the upper level, 1st row, in a corner at the end Nova would be shooting at in the 2nd half.

Steve Lapas’ Wildcats opened with a 13-0 run on Craig Esherick’s Hoyas. Esherick had just taken over for the legend, John Thompson. 

Just as an aside. My friend and I kept thinking Esherick looked A LOT like Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds (aka Turd Ferguson) on SNL’s celebrity Jeopardy. You be the judge…

Anyway, back to basketball.  

In the 2nd half, the Wildcats built a 17-point lead only to see it wiped away with a 17-0 Hoyas run. Georgetown’s Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje’s lay-up tied the game at 67 with 2:30 left. RBB was a Cameroonian baller before it was trendy. 

I remember a slew of guys were in foul trouble. Including RBB and Malik Allen.

In the final :45 seconds, tied at 69-69, both Nova and G-town sent guys to the line to shoot two. Neither team hit a free throw. Missed all four.  

Nova had one final chance on an inbounds play with 11 seconds left in regulation. John Celestand got the ball, tried working for a shot, gave it up to Allen who shot and missed from the top of the key as time expired.  

1st OT

The Hoyas struck first with a three, then three players fouled out; the Hoyas’ RBB and Jaleel Watkins and Nova’s T.J. Caouette. Six players would end up fouling out of this game in total. 

With :11 seconds left and Nova down two, Brooks Sales hit two free throws to tie it at 78. Kevin Braswell, a freshman guard for the Hoyas brought the ball up and was picked up by Celestand. Braswell rose for the game winner with :03 seconds on the clock and Celestand stuffed him! The ball never even left the freshman’s hand! Celestand was all over it. Smothered! 

Time ran out. 

2nd OT 

The game seesawed a bit. Howard Brown banked in a three for Nova. Braswell responded with a driving lay-up. 82-81, Georgetown.

With a little over 2:00 left, Allen, fouled out.  Nova would keep pace thanks to a huge three from Brian Lynch with just over a minute left that gave the Cats an 87-86 lead.   

Then things got bleak for Nova. 

Georgetown took a 90-87 lead on another Braswell layup and a free throws from Daymond Jackson and Anthony Perry. Perry made the first of two, missed the second. Nova secured the rebound and pushed up the floor with :14 seconds left. 

Then a Nova Miracle. 

The Wildcats, down 3, crossed half court and set up their offense with nine seconds left. They worked it to Brown in the corner. The same corner my friend and I were sitting over in the upper level. Brown let it fly and hit the three to tie the game at 90. With 2.4 seconds left the Hoyas inbounded under the basket and threw a pass to half court. The ball was tipped by Nova and wound up in the hands of the Cats’ Jermaine Medley. Medley grabbed the ball, spun and shot all in one motion. 

Splash. 

Buzzer Beater. 

Nova Wins! 

The Wildcats scored six points in under four seconds to win in double overtime, 93-90. 

Me, Ryan and his parents jumped with excitement, high-fived and then ran to the parking lot. We had our own game to play. We got from the upper level to the car in record time and we were one of the first cars out of the lot. We just made our CYO game in Lansdale, which for the record, we won.

One of the things that made being at this game so awesome was that the broadcast had a horrible camera angle for Medley’s game winner. ESPN didn’t capture the shot live. When Ryan and I got to our game that night, a teammate couldn’t believe we “were at that game.” He said it wasn’t until replays aired that people at home actually saw what happened.  

Fast forward 17 years. I’m boarding a flight, Charlotte to Philadelphia. Christmas Eve. None-other-than Steve Lappas sits next to me. We get to talking. Incredibly nice guy. I bring up this Nova game. Two things he told me. He knew Celestand had Braswell on that block in the first OT and he still can’t believe how Medley made that circus shot at the end. Neither can I. 

Nova-Georgetown double OT, truly the best game I ever saw.  

The Kris Jenkins shot vs. North Carolina was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

The Kris Jenkins shot vs. North Carolina was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

Reuben Frank and Sean Kane both chose the 2016 national championship game between Villanova and North Carolina as the greatest game they ever saw in person. Reuben was there as a reporter, Sean was there as a fan. Here are each of their perspectives. 

Reuben Frank: We're taught from Day 1 as journalists to never let your emotions show, to remain unbiased, and for the first 33 years, six months and 12 days of my career I had a perfect record. Then Kris Jenkins hit a jumper. So much for objectivity. I was court-side at NRG Stadium in Houston - second row, center court - when Jenkins his that 26-footer at the buzzer to give Villanova the 2016 NCAA Championship over North Carolina, and I'm pretty sure that Mike Kern of the Daily News, sitting to my left, and I both stood up and looked at each other and screamed "OHHHHHHHHHHH" at the top of our lungs when the ball splashed through the basket as the buzzer sounded.

Then, as the confetti rained down from the roof and bedlam ensued, Jenkins for some reason ran right in front of me to celebrate and I began taking as many pictures as I could. The Super Bowl was dramatic and unforgettable. But for that Villanova-UNC game I was on top of the action, just a few feet from the court, just a few feet where I lost my cool after 33 years, just a few feet from the greatest shot in college basketball history. 

Sean Kane: This game narrowly edges out Super Bowl 52 and the classic Duke/Kentucky regional final at the Spectrum in 1992. I'm fortunate enough to have been in attendance for arguably the two greatest shots in college basketball history - Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper to beat Kentucky and Kris Jenkins' three-pointer to beat North Carolina. The 2016 national title game is my choice for a number of reasons. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I've been a Villanova fan for as long as I can remember. My grandfather went to Villanova. My uncle and cousin went there too. I've been going to Villanova basketball and football games since I was a little boy. So to be there to see my favorite team win a national championship at the buzzer? Nothing tops that. 

The 2016 Final Four was the first time I attended a Villanova NCAA Tournament game as a fan. I covered Villanova in the tournament every year from 2006-2009, trying my best to stay objective. But going as a fan was a new experience. My Dad and I decided to go as soon as Villanova beat Kansas in the Elite Eight. My wife immediately got us plane tickets and a hotel room in Houston and we left the morning of the national semifinals. We were there for Villanova's historic 44-point win over Oklahoma on Saturday night, the biggest blowout in Final Four history. The PGA Tour was in Houston that weekend, so we spent Sunday watching golf. It all worked out perfectly. Then the main event - Villanova and North Carolina in the championship game on Monday night. North Carolina had ended Villanova's season in the NCAA Tournament three times during the Jay Wright Era - 2005, 2009 and 2013. But this time was different thanks to Phil Booth's 20 points off the bench and Ryan Arcidiacono finding Jenkins for the win as the buzzer sounded. It was one of the greatest games in college basketball history. It ended with the best shot in NCAA Tournament history. And I was there to see it with my Dad, who raised me as a Villanova fan. That's as good as it gets for me.