Not the type to usually let his emotions pour out, Villanova guard Collin Gillespie raced ahead of the pack screaming, leaving the paint area his Wildcats had just been defending, after a last Kansas shot didn’t fall and Villanova’s stand morphed into a celebration.
Bill Self used the word “awful” to describe how his top-ranked Jayhawks performed down the stretch Saturday afternoon in the sold-out Wells Fargo Center, as Villanova scored the last 5 points in the last 67 seconds, for a 56-55 thriller. The Kansas coach acknowledged Gillespie had more than a little to do with how it all played out.
The box score doesn’t tell this tale, barely even hints at it. Gillespie took 15 shots and made 5 of them. Took 10 three-pointers, made two. He had a couple of assists, which means the junior had 1 assist before he dished off for the game-winner by Jermaine Samuels, an open three-pointer with 20 seconds left.
There was more craziness after that. Villanova coach Jay Wright said he never could remember his team needing to inbound the ball so many times at the end, since Kansas could keep fouling, not over any limit. Villanova was successful twice. The third time, a turnover. “We kind of ran out of our plays, honestly,’’ Wright said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in that situation.”
Gillespie shaped the game at the end. The first time was obvious … Kansas up 55-51, just more than a minute left. Gillespie steal up top. Gillespie layup at the other end. Villanova suddenly with life.
The other time was almost as big, at the very end, and there’s nothing about it in the box score at all. Kansas had 11 seconds to make a play, down a point. Except Gillespie got a hand on the ball again up top. He couldn’t make the steal this time, as the ball went out along the sideline. But Kansas had to inbound again, this time, with 4 seconds left. One driving shot, a full defensive effort by Villanova’s Saddiq Bey, no time for a put-back. The Villanova celebration was on.
“We did do a pretty good job defensively,’’ Wright said. “We were on every shot. So were they. That’s what makes them so good. You play against them, you just struggle finding ways to score. … I don’t think we were as good as them defensively, but I think we were close. I think that was enough, playing at home.”
Sitting between Gillespie and Samuels, Wright talked about how his veterans made the difference. “The guys that have played in this program, as they get older, they know how to make plays. They know what it takes at the end of a game.”
About his highlight steal, Gillespie said, “I was just playing the ball screen … . That’s what we do. When there’s a guy in front of us, we dive from behind, or try to get it from behind. I ended up getting it.”
When did Gillespie pick up Samuels for the three-pointer? The guard made it clear his eye never really left Samuels.
“Originally, I had bounced it out -- the play was originally for him,’’ Gillespie said.. “Then I got a switch, so I tried to attack it. Somebody attacked me, and I gave it up to [Samuels] as soon as I saw the guy attack.”
Asked about being calm at the end, Gillespie said, “We work on this stuff every day. ‘Wildcat Minute,’ that’s what we call it. We work on it every day in practice.”
There’s a reason this Villanova group, while not dominant, isn’t one any NCAA opponent would be real excited to see in March. The ball moves, help defense shows up, everyone hits the boards. Way up the list: In the last minutes, you’ve got to get past Gillespie.
Ask him about his own defensive evolution, Gillespie will tell you he thinks he’s gotten a lot better -- just the little things, not reaching as much, “being solid. Just trying to stay locked into the scout,’’ Gillespie said, referring to the scouting report. “The scout is what we really lock into. It helps, so many details.”
Wright was asked when, going back, he realized that Villanova was going to be all right with Gillespie having the ball in his hands. He went way back.
“When he was a freshman, honestly,’’ Wright said, going back to the 2018 NCAA title team. “Watching him and Jalen Brunson go at it every day. I know during that year … in my mind, if we’ve got to give Jalen a rest, move him off the ball, I was always fine with him. You see it in practice, when they go at a veteran player and that veteran player is having a little trouble. All right, this guy’s got it.”
Brunson played in the same building the night before for the Dallas Mavericks against the Sixers and left with a win and the best plus/minus ratio of anybody, Mavericks or Sixers. Saturday, Gillespie had the baton, and maybe there was another number within that box score that helped tell the story. He played 35 minutes and 19 seconds, more than any of his teammates. He left the court for 11 seconds after halftime.