John Gallagher, head basketball coach at the University of Hartford, has been on the court with Villanova as a reserve player at St. Joseph’s, and an assistant coach for La Salle and Penn. Tuesday night was his first time as a head coach.
He got the good Villanova right in front of him, running on all sorts of cylinders, taking out his Hartford Hawks by 87-53 up at Mohegan Sun.
“It looks like a group that’s played together for 10 years,’' Gallagher said of Villanova, now ranked 12th after losing Saturday to Virginia Tech.
Was Gallagher pro-Villanova or anti-Villanova growing up?
Gallagher answered this way after the game, how when he was working at La Salle, grabbing dinner with Lionel Simmons, Villanova was on TV, playing in the NCAA tournament.
“I said to Lionel, ‘The highest compliment I can give Jay Wright is, everybody in Philly hated Villanova,’’ Gallagher said. “Now, we don’t root for Villanova … what Jay has done, we don’t root against Villanova.”
Growing up, Gallagher said, he didn’t miss a game at La Salle in the ’80s, and playing on Hawk HIll for Phil Martelli, “I can’t say that I ever rooted for Villanova. I was the one kid in ’85 who rooted for Georgetown.”
Tuesday night, up at the Mohegan Sun bubble, Villanova didn’t play the Perfect Game. But the Wildcats, coming off a loss to Virginia Tech, found a quick rhythm, stayed in it.
“Obviously, I talk to [Penn coach] Stevie Donahue every day. He’s like an older brother of mine,’' Gallagher said afterward, reminded of how the Quakers have tried to defend Villanova, getting a W out of it a couple of seasons back. “You have to choose how you play Villanova.”
Meaning, Gallagher said, if you’re going to help off the post, if you’re not going to help off the post. Those kinds of things.
“If they’re hitting threes like they were tonight, they’re not losing to anyone in the country. That’s just the way it is,’' Gallagher said, after Villanova made 15-of-36 threes. " You have to choose how you win, and choose how you lose. A big Fran O’Hanlon line.”
Delco guys, and certainly Delco basketball players, almost universally consider themselves to be Philly guys every bit as much as anyone actually from within the city limits. John Gallagher is one of those Delaware County types going back to his Cardinal O’Hara playing days.
Brother John Kane, now the President of Calvert Hall in Baltimore, got to know Gallagher when both worked at La Salle. But Kane explained Tuesday that he first got to know Gallagher when Kane was athletic director at West Catholic, and Gallagher was an O’Hara student.
“During the off-season, he would call my office to see if our guys were playing pick-up,’' Kane remembered. “If yes, he would drive in to play.”
In his decade in charge at Hartford, Gallagher has had his best years lately. Last March, his Hawks were about to play in the America East final, an NCAA bid on the line, when COVID-19 shut down the season, no NCAA tournament.
“This takes away memories,’' Gallagher said over the phone that week. “There’s no memories anymore, good or bad.”
Gallagher has a Philly guy in his lineup. Traci Carter, from South Philadelphia, may have set an NCAA record Tuesday, playing against Villanova for his third different school, after starting his career at Marquette, playing at La Salle, now in his second season at Hartford. Gallagher said Carter is as good a leader as he’s ever had. Carter led Hartford with 13 points.
Villanova originally wasn’t on Hartford’s 2020-21 schedule, but this year games obviously are being set up on the fly. This one popped up at about midnight Saturday night.
“It wasn’t a Philly thing,’' Jay Wright said of happening to play Hartford as the fourth Bubbleville opponent for his team.
How far back does Wright go with Johnny Gall?
“Everybody goes back far with Johnny Gall,’' Wright said, explaining that he couldn’t exactly remember not knowing Gallagher. “I’ve run into him on early-morning walks on the beach in Ocean City, walking along talking basketball. That might have been 15 years ago. A long time.”
When Gallagher got the call, he said, he had to say yes, even coming off a much more competitive game Friday against Connecticut. He had to give his guys the experience.