For its first official basketball competition in eight months and 18 days, Villanova at times showed the raggedy play that coach Jay Wright was fearing, having had no scrimmages, and not as many practices as he had hoped.
The Wildcats fell behind Boston College by nine points midway through the second half Wednesday night. But they came back behind the play of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who scored 18 points and pulled down 10 rebounds to lift the third-ranked Wildcats to a 76-67 victory over the Eagles in the 2K Empire Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
The Cats earned a berth in the championship game Thursday night against No. 18 Arizona State, which defeated Rhode Island, 94-88, in the first game.
Villanova trailed, 57-48, with 13 minutes to play but held Boston College to just one field goal over the next seven minutes while going on a 15-4 run to take the lead, 63-61, on Justin Moore’s layup with 6:10 to play. The Wildcats went on to make seven of their last eight shots.
Defensively, the Wildcats also dominated late, limiting the Eagles to six points over the last 7:42.
Collin Gillespie added 15 points and seven assists for Villanova, while Caleb Daniels, making his debut in a Wildcats uniform, and Moore each scored 14 points.
The Wildcats hit eight of their first 13 shots in taking an 18-11 lead, and took their largest lead of the half, 27-19, on Jermaine Samuels’ driving left-handed layup with 5:46 to play. But the Eagles went on an 11-2 tear to take their first lead of the game, finding ways to get to the rim whenever they wanted behind their quick guards.
The score was tied, 34-34, at the half. Boston College scored its last five field goals on four layups and a dunk, and outscored Nova in the paint, 20-12. The Wildcats also were outrebounded, 20-11.
Villanova found the answers to the Eagles’ zone on the offensive end and tightened up on the inside at the defensive end in the second half. But it helped that they had Robinson-Earl on the court full-time after two early fouls limited his playing time to seven minutes in the first half.
With Robinson-Earl in the game for the entire second half, the Cats picked up their intensity under the boards. They wound up outrebounding Boston College, 23-11, in the second half and 34-31 for the game. Samuels added nine rebounds. Villanova shot 54.5% from the floor in the second half.
Daniels, a transfer from Tulane, made five-of-nine shots from the floor and knocked down a pair of three-point baskets. Another newcomer, former Abington High star Eric Dixon, played four minutes, all in the first half, and pulled down one rebound.
Asked about the difference in the second half, Villanova coach Jay Wright said, “We got Jeremiah back on the floor.”
“He’s such a big part of our defense,” Wright said. “He plays pick-and-rolls. He can switch. He’s our best rebounder. That did make a big difference in the second half.”