After enjoying success in two games at the Mohegan Sun Arena’s “Bubbleville” complex, Villanova has decided to stay at the facility in Uncasville, Conn., for an encore performance.
The third-ranked Wildcats posted a pair of nine-point victories over Boston College and No. 18 Arizona State to capture the championship of the 2K Empire Classic, and will get in one more game, against Virginia Tech on Saturday night, before returning home.
Coach Jay Wright said the wheels began turning to find another game even before Villanova took the court Thursday night against Arizona State. Temple had reported positive tests for COVID-19, thus resulting in the cancellation of games against the Hokies on Saturday night and against the Wildcats on Thursday at Finneran Pavilion.
However, before any game could be scheduled, the Wildcats needed to ask St. Joseph’s if it could move back their scheduled Monday game at the Pavilion to Wednesday. The Hawks agreed. Then after the 83-74 win over Arizona State, Wright received a call from a representative of the Gazelle Group, the promoter of the Empire Classic, to let him know Virginia Tech would play.
“I had to check with the team; they thought they were going home,” Wright said Friday. “They figured we were done. I don’t even know if they knew Temple was canceled, because we only talk about the next game. So the guys had already gone back to their room by the time I got back.
“I called Collin [Gillespie] and I told Collin, ‘Talk to the team, see what they think.’ Collin called me back, I called Gazelle Group back. I gave the OK to Ash Puri, our associate AD, and [assistant coach] George Halcovage, and they started making the details.”
It’s been a game of musical chairs for the Wildcats and other teams trying to schedule and reschedule games in the middle of a pandemic. Baylor was supposed to be the fourth team at the Empire Classic but did not come after coach Scott Drew tested positive. The Bears were replaced Tuesday by Rhode Island.
“The two teams that we prepared for, we got to play,” Wright said. “Arizona State, the day before, was definitely not prepared for Rhode Island. That’s a really good team and a tough team to play.
“I think with us with Virginia Tech, we’re trying to do everything we can. Coaches like to have their teams prepared, but we’ve actually said to our team that there’s going to be some games like this where we’re just going to have to go in and adjust during the game.”
The Wildcats needed an 11-3 spurt in the final five minutes to defeat Boston College on Wednesday night but had a little easier time against the Sun Devils. They used a 17-6 run midway through the second half to take a 17-point lead and brought it home behind a career-high 28 points from Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
“It’s really nice as a coach when you see a young guy practice really well,” Wright said, “and then it works out for him in the game. Jeremiah’s been playing like that this fall but you never know when game-time hits what’s going to happen. So I was really happy for him because he has played like that all fall.
“He spent a lot of time on his own because we couldn’t work with him a lot in the offseason. He spent a lot of time on his own developing his jump shot, and I do think he’s ready to be a go-to guy.”
Named the tournament’s most valuable player, Robinson-Earl scored 46 points and pulled down 18 rebounds in the two games while shooting 64.5% from the floor. The Wildcats played good defense for the last three halves of competition, particularly against Arizona State All-America guard Remy Martin, limiting him to five points. They also were plus-19 on the boards.
Wright said it was a good beginning considering the Wildcats did not scrimmage any outside teams in the preseason, but there’s work to be done.
“We turned the ball over and we still have to get better defensively,” he said. “We fouled a little bit too much. We have plenty of things to work on but I feel good about those first two games because we really went into them just thinking, ‘OK, we’re really going to learn a lot,’ and we did.”