The crowd was ready, the first sellout at Finneran Pavilion in 622 days, and Villanova gave the fans a show Tuesday — hustling, scrapping, diving to the floor and making a three-point basket look as easy as an uncontested layup.
The fourth-ranked Wildcats got the much-anticipated 2020-21 season off to a good start with a 91-51 victory over Mount St. Mary’s. The game gave Jay Wright a chance to observe different lineup combinations by freely substituting – with the contest less than 10 minutes old, 10 players already had competed on the floor.
Junior Justin Moore scored a career-high 27 points to lead four players in double figures and tied his career high with seven assists. He and Brandon Slater (17 points) combined for 11 three-point baskets, sparking a 16-for-30 performance (8 of 12 in the second half) by the Wildcats, who used this game as a warmup for Friday night’s early showdown against No. 2 UCLA.
Who’s finding whom?
Moore started out quickly with 17 points and four assists in the first half. Collin Gillespie, in his first game back at the Finn since tearing the medial collateral ligament in his left knee a little more than eight months ago, had a relatively quiet night with 13 points but added five assists and two steals.
“Obviously, he got into the flow of the game which is really impressive,” Gillespie said of Moore. “When a guy is going like that you try to find him as much as possible and give him the ball where he can make plays, where he can have catch-and-shoot opportunities. Obviously, we found him and he did a really good job.”
Gillespie somewhat downplayed the fact that his return from the serious knee injury was actually a big deal.
“I felt really good,” he said. “I think during the offseason I got a lot of reps in in practice and scrimmages so tonight was just another game playing with my teammates .
“It’s a blessing that we have this extra year. It’s really exciting just being back out there with my teammates and my coaches. It was just really fun to be out there.”
Freshman making mark
Wright played three of his four freshmen a total of 30-plus minutes. Jordan Longino had the most playing time (13 minutes, 57 seconds), the best plus-minus (plus-13) and two steals. He and Trey Patterson scored two points apiece, and 6-foot-9 Nnanna Njoku pulled down four rebounds and had a walk-off blocked shot of sorts on the Mountaineers’ final possession of the game.
“I thought the ability to use our depth kept us strong in the second half,” Wright said. “I thought we kept up our defensive intensity. That’s something that has affected us in the past when we didn’t have the depth. We’d play hard for a while and we’d lose our defensive intensity because of fatigue. I thought keeping fresh bodies out there defensively really helped.”
The rebound watch
Wright has said that Villanova will be challenged under the boards in the early going, and the Wildcats came out of their season opener with a 27-26 edge over a Mount St. Mary’s team that has a starting lineup measuring 6-9, 6-8 and 6-7. Jermaine Samuels, who scored 17 points, led the way with six rebounds and Caleb Daniels added five.
‘I’m telling you, Mount St. Mary’s is a better team than that score, I promise you,” the coach said. “Watch them during the season. They’ve got very good size, they’re a very good rebounding team. So I’m going to be concerned all year about rebounding, but just winning by one against them isn’t overly concerning.”