On opening night in the Big East, Villanova’s Collin Gillespie provided experience, leadership, tenacity and a measure of calm Monday night in front of another packed house at Finneran Pavilion.
The junior guard, who has the most starts (20) in conference games of anyone currently on the Wildcats roster, found ways to score from behind the 3-point line and going to the basket, finishing with 24 points in the 10th-ranked Wildcats’ 68-62 victory over Xavier.
Gillespie shot 9 of 22 from the floor with three 3-point baskets, and dished out 5 assists, in leading the offense. Defensively, the Cats (10-2, 1-0 Big East) needed a team effort for 40 minutes to try to keep the Musketeers (11-3, 0-1) out of the paint, where the visitors outscored 'Nova, 46-28.
At both ends, Gillespie had a calming influence on mostly younger teammates, especially when the Musketeers made a late run, as the Cats won their eighth straight Big East opener.
Gillespie was assisted on offense by Jermaine Samuels with 14 points and 8 rebounds, and Justin Moore with 13 points. Naji Marshall led Xavier with 19 while Tyrique Jones had 12 points and 10 boards.
Gillespie got the Wildcats out to an early 13-point lead during a 17-0 run that saw him dish out four assists and convert a conventional three-point play. Villanova also owned the boards in the early going, with a 22-11 edge at one point.
The Musketeers narrowed the margin to 32-25 at halftime, and to four in the opening minutes of the second half before the Wildcats built their lead up a bit. Gillespie stayed aggressive with the basketball, driving to the basket even when it didn’t look like he had much room to get to the rim.
From 47-39, Gillespie scored 10 of his team’s next 13 points, including a pair of threes, the second of which gave Villanova a 60-49 lead. Saddiq Bey hit a trey to get the advantage to 63-51 with 3:50 to play but the Wildcats had to hold on as Xavier, which didn’t hit a three-point basket until the final minute, kept threatening.
“I thought we did a good job not fouling,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I thought we did a good job defending the three. We just didn’t do a great job all the time defending in the paint area, like with our physicality. That’s something we’ve got to learn. We’ll get better. We need to get better at that.”
“I think that’s just kind of in my nature as a leader on the team,” Gillespie said of being aggressive with the ball. “It’s knowing when we needed to get a good shot, when we needed a stop, talking to the younger guys, making sure they know what we were doing defensively and what set we were in offensively, just being a leader vocally and leading by example on the court.”
Freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has played back-to-back games against seniors with size and bulk, Udoka Azubuike of Kansas and Tyrique Jones of Xavier, and has done an admirable job, with Jones going for 12 points and 10 rebounds. Although he had 5 points and 4 rebounds, Robinson-Earl dished out 3 assists with 3 steals. “He doesn’t go against anybody like that in practice,” Wright said. “He did it against Azubuike. He did it in this game. He did it against Baylor and Ohio State, so he’s starting to get and understand how physical we have to play.”