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Collin Gillespie takes over as Villanova takes out Providence

A packed house in Providence got what it showed up for in a Big East battle. Gillespie scored a career-high 33 points.

Villanova guard Bryan Antoine (left) battles Providence forward Ed Croswell for a rebound during the first half.
Villanova guard Bryan Antoine (left) battles Providence forward Ed Croswell for a rebound during the first half.Read moreCharles Krupa / AP

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — It turns out the Big East regular season is going right through Collin Gillespie. The eighth-ranked Providence Friars, trying to put a stranglehold on the conference race, couldn’t stay in front of Gillespie, who dropped an open three-pointer with 28 seconds left that quieted a maniacal crowd inside the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

A career-high 33 points for Gillespie led No. 10 Villanova to an 89-84 road masterpiece.

“This kid right there murdered us,” said a front-row baseline beer drinker as Gillespie dropped in his last foul shots. Several possessions earlier, a young boy just behind articulated it this way: “Oh, no.”

A missed shot, a Villanova rebound, a pass out to Gillespie. A pump fake.

“Oh, no, oh, no.”

Gillespie from three.

“That was game, set, match,” said Providence coach Ed Cooley of leaving Gillespie wide open for the last three-pointer.

Sprained ankles suffered by Justin Moore and then Gillespie in recent weeks are officially past tense as a story line, if not a medical issue. Moore heated up early in the first half, Gillespie caught real fire early in the second and also took advantage of matchups inside.

“These kids in this league are so tough,” said Jay Wright, sitting between Gillespie and Justin Moore at the post-game press conference. “They’re not practicing. Their ankles are swollen …

He repeated: “These kids are tough in this league.”

Providence had won five Big East games by five points or less. The Friars hadn’t dominated any category in Big East stats, except the one that counts. You saw how. Villanova was outshooting Providence from deep. Providence kept driving to the hoop. Until Gillespie settled matters.

Early minutes are important minutes

It wasn’t exactly a cushion, but when Villanova made its first four shots, it offered life for the entire first half, even after the Wildcats made just one of their next 10. The early life was a Justin Moore production. Moore made five of Villanova’s first six baskets, including three three-pointers. By halftime, Moore had 18 and a late Villanova flurry pushed their lead out to 46-39. Gillespie had the late hot hand, scoring eight of his 10 first-half points in the last three minutes.

Bottom line: The guys with sprained ankles this month had 28 points by the break.

The Big 5 transfers …

Ed Croswell, the St. Joseph’s Prep graduate and La Salle transfer, has been doing his thing off the bench for Providence, making 71% of his two-points shots this season. Croswell was slightly better in the first half, making three of four shots during his seven minutes.

Meanwhile, Providence guard Jared Bynum, the St. Joseph’s transfer, is pulling off one of the great career revivals in Big East history. His three-point shooting percentage was 11.9% last season, making just 5 of 42 shots. This season? Bynum has made 29 of 63, for 46%. As low as you can go to about as good as it gets.

This game? Bynum led Providence in the first half with 10 points, getting to the hoop and stepping back for a three, sizing up matchups well. He finished with 15.

The atmosphere?

As good as it gets. The standing-room crowd basically surrounded the court, seats or no seats.

The matchup inside …

Was a pitched battle for every inch, Eric Dixon up against Nate Watson, who is as good as it gets in the Big East at this stuff. Providence came out of halftime going right to Watson for three straight hoops. But Dixon wasn’t giving in. The Friars had to search elsewhere, most effectively by their guards driving to the hoop.

With seven minutes left, Watson seemed to have position on him, getting an entry pass. Dixon blocked the shot. Then Dixon got an offensive rebound immediately at the other end, feeding Brandon Slater for a layup. Dixon also caught a fullcourt feed from Slater over the Providence press for a crucial late bucket.

Big Villanova bench contribution

Caleb Daniels gets in games so quickly he can barely be considered a reserve. Whatever you call him, Daniels provided in the second half. His three-pointer with just under nine minutes left broke a 64-64 tie. Then Daniels came up with a steal and never let go of the ball, drawing a foul at the other end.

So what does it mean?

The Big East regular season is officially up for grabs, Villanova within a game of Providence in the loss column. Also maybe at stake: who gets the top NCAA seed from the Big East. It’s conceivable that could mean playing in Philadelphia since it’s hard to see anybody but the top seed from the Big East staying in the East.