CONWAY, S.C. – On Thursday, Villanova had its way with Middle Tennessee.
Some 24 hours later, this one was different. Mississippi State might not be Kentucky, but it sure isn’t Middle Tennessee either. So for the young 17th-ranked Wildcats, this figured to be a much tougher challenge.
And no one understood that more than Jay Wright. He’s coached against Ben Howland teams before.
“They’re definitely going to be in the (NCAA) Tournament,” Wright said following the Wildcats’ 83-76 victory that they very much had to earn at Coastal Carolina’s HTC Center in the afternoon semifinal of the Myrtle Beach Invitational. “You know they’re going to be physical, and solid. They’ll defend, and get to the offensive glass. So you have to be better. We took a step today.”
“We’ve gradually gotten better from (the 25-point loss on Nov. 13 at) Ohio State to now. But today, we knew gradual wasn’t going to do it.”
MSU (5-1) must have one of the nation’s biggest teams. And that’s mostly what Villanova (4-1) had to deal with. The Wildcats will face No. 24 Baylor next in Sunday’s 5:30 final.
It’s the seventh straight season that the Cats reached a tournament title game. Of course, they won each of the previous six. Then again, they’ve taken home way more significant trophies in other months during that span as well. But can a national program really ever experience too much success, especially when Wright -- who has zero seniors -- is starting two first-year guys and a sophomore?
It’s all part of the DNA. Maybe, at this point, it’s become force of habit.
“I can tell them all about the past,” Wright said. “But you have to go through it. We’ve been blessed with really good players. Everything for this group is going to be a first. At Ohio State, we didn’t handle it well.”
The Wildcats used a 16-0 run midway through the first half to take a nine-point lead into intermission. They were up by 10 with just under six minutes to go. But the Bulldogs got to within three with just over a minute remaining. Then freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl made two free throws and Jermaine Samuels, a junior, sealed things with a three-point play.
Junior Collin Gillespie had another strong start, getting 11 of the Wildcats’ first 14. He finished with 18, to go with nine assists and six turnovers. Robinson-Earl had 22 on 9-for-12 shooting. Soph Saddiq Bey added 17, going 7-of-10 from the field. The three-man bench contributed just five points in 44 minutes, but it didn’t matter.
The Wildcats shot 31-for-53 (58.5%), including 10-for-24 (41.7%) from the arc. They held the Bulldogs to 41.8% from the floor, and they grabbed two more rebounds.
Villanova took some punches, as expected. And the Wildcats responded, with toughness and composure. And yes, some talent, too.
“I take pride in just trying to be a leader,” said Gillespie, who missed the preseason with a broken nose. “We have to find a way to do the little things, to get our guys going. It gives them confidence. We got some stops.”
Added Robinson-Earl: “It’s so much fun, going out and playing the game we love together. We go through our trials and tribulations every day in practice.
“It means we play for those who came before us. They set the tone.”
And so they’re playing for yet another in-season title. Sure sounds familiar enough.