Just when it looked as if Villanova was assured of extending its winning streak over DePaul to 19 games, an air of desperation hung over Finneran Pavilion Tuesday night as the Blue Demons rallied from 11 down in the last 2-plus minutes of regulation and appeared ready to finally break through.
The visitors got it to overtime and had chances in the extra period, but Collin Gillespie scored six of his 21 points and the 14th-ranked Wildcats played defense just well enough to outlast the Blue Demons, 79-75, and keep the streak going.
Villanova (13-3, 4-1 Big East) looked comfortable when Jeremiah Robinson-Earl sank two free throws for a 66-55 lead late in the second half, but the Wildcats turned the ball over four times against a fullcourt press to fuel an 11-1 run by DePaul (12-5, 0-4) that resulted in extra five minutes.
Gillespie began the overtime with four straight free throws, but a turnover on the Cats’ third possession led to a layup by Charlie Moore, and it would be a fight to the finish.
Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels hit baskets in the paint for a 75-72 lead and Moore missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:11 left to give 'Nova a chance to establish some breathing room, but the Cats committed another turnover. Moore’s two free throws with 6.4 seconds left made it a one-point game.
Gillespie was fouled trying to beat the press and sank two free throws with 3.3 seconds remaining. Moore was fouled at 1.2 seconds, made the first and deliberately missed the second, but Samuels rebounded and closed out the game with two free throws.
Bey added 18 points and Samuels 15. Robinson-Earl had a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Moore led all scorers with 29 and Paul Reed chipped in with 18 plus 15 rebounds.
Villanova fell behind by 13 in the first half, but scored the last 12 points of the period to take a 30-28 halftime lead despite shooting just 31% from the field. The Wildcats ran their offense more smoothly for much of the second half, sinking 7 of their first 12 shots to take a 50-43 lead on back-to-back layups by Robinson-Earl, the second with 10:53 to play.
Robinson-Earl scored again on a layup to increase the margin to nine, 54-45. After the Blue Demons drew to within five, Bey scored five points in a 7-0 run that got the lead up to 61-49 on Robinson-Earl’s tap-in with 4:12 remaining. The Cats appeared to be home free, but it would be a tough contest to the end.
“I’m proud of them,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said of his players. “That’s a tough thing to do. You know all the mistakes you made going down the stretch in regulation and still, to stick together like that, it’s a great testament to Collin’s leadership and also Jermaine and [Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree]. That’s their job to keep everybody together. That’s what a season is. You go through experiences like that, and you learn how to trust each other in tough situations.”
“I think there’s going to be a lot of firsts for this team,” Gillespie said. “We got down early, battled back, got up again. We just have to learn how to compete for a full 40 minutes.”
Robinson-Earl had his share of problems dealing with DePaul big men Reed and Jaylen Butz, getting inside on a number of occasions but missing as he tried to alter his shot to avoid a block. His only basket of the first half came on a driving dunk early on.