After scoring a career high 27 points in a 91-51 demolition of Mount St. Mary’s, junior guard Justin Moore was asked whether his performance was about sending a message to the nation and announcing himself to a national audience.
“I think part of sending a message is us coming out and playing hard and together,” Moore said. “Not just me sending a message, it's all of us, each individually and as a team.”
The final score, a 40 point win over a team that made the NCAA Tournament last year, was a reflection of that team effort from the Wildcats. Three Wildcats besides Moore scored in double figures, as graduate forward Jermaine Samuels scored 17 points, senior forward Brandon Slater scored 17 as well and graduate point guard Collin Gillespie added 13. Eight of the ten Wildcats to play scored for the ‘Cats, and seven of the ten recorded an assist.
The Wildcats dominated the game from start to finish, bettering the Mountaineers on both ends of the court. Villanova shot 55.4% from the floor and 55.3% from three point range, while forcing The Mount into 18 turnovers and an under 45% clip on field goal attempts.
Slater, in just his third start as a Wildcat, joined Moore in setting a new career high in points. Slater scored 17 points and made five threes in the game, after hitting just ten throughout the season last year.
“It started last season at the end of the season,” head coach Jay Wright said of Slater. “He started getting confidence as a shooter and we saw it all in the off season, so it was really cool to see it translate into this season. He's playing with great confidence, and we need it.”
The Wildcats jumped out to a 10-0 lead, blitzing the Mountaineers with an early full court press. Villanova turned three turnovers into a pair of threes from Moore and a layup from Gillespie, stunning the Mountaineers and whipping a packed Finn into a frenzy.
“I thought we started well defensively and we want to do that every game,” Wright said. “Sometimes we don't start as aggressively as we like defensively, but I thought we did a good job tonight.”
After the initial run, the Wildcats continued pushing the pace. With eight minutes left in the half, the Wildcats went on an 8-0 run punctuated by a three from Brandon Slater, and the Wildcats finished the half on a 10-2 run to enter the break with a commanding 45-21 lead.
Moore led the ‘Cats in scoring with 17 points in the first half, while Samuels was just behind with 13. Villanova shot 57% from the field in the half, including 44% from beyond the arc, while the Mountaineers were forced into nine turnovers and shot just 39% from the field.
“I thought Justin also did a great job,” Wright said. “We’re trying to teach him, you gotta stay aggressive and be a killer, even though you want to get everybody else involved. If it's there, you gotta take it. And that's what I thought he really did a good job [of] tonight.”
After the half, the Mountaineers looked to get back into the game with six straight points, but Villanova quickly began extending the lead again. Redshirt sophomore forward Eric Dixon and Moore hit threes to increase the lead, but each time The Mount was able to cut the lead back to 24.
With ten minutes remaining in the game, the Wildcats renewed their defensive intensity, holding the Mountaineers without a basket for over four minutes. Villanova went on a 14-2 run to stretch the lead even further, punctuated by freshman guard Jordan Longino’s first points as a Wildcat. Even up 35 points, Wright kept his starters in, before bringing his second unit in for the final three minutes of the game.
“They’re a good team,” Wright said. “They’re an NCAA Tournament team from last year with a lot of veteran players ... we think we played well if we played defensively like that against them, they run some really good stuff, so that was a good start for us because we think Mount St Mary’s is pretty good.
“Mount St Mary’s is a better team than that score, I promise you.”
Three freshmen played valuable minutes for the Wildcats, including Longino and forward Nnanna Njoku, both of whom made their Villanova debuts. Longino played 14 minutes off the bench, while Njoku played nine minutes. Njoku recorded four rebounds in his limited gametime, adding a block as well.
“They just came in and brought great energy off the bench, played really hard,” Gillespie said of the freshmen. “I think that's something that we didn't really have to teach those guys... I think that’s super impressive of those guys.”
Wright was also excited about the minutes he got from his bench.
“I thought that the ability to use our depth kept us strong in the second half, I thought it kept up our defensive intensity,” Wright said. “That's something that has affected us in the past when we didn't have the depth, we’d play hard for awhile, we lose our defensive intensity just with a little fatigue, but I thought [because] we were able to keep fresh bodies out there defensively, it really helped.”
The Wildcats were helped by a return of the home fans to the Finn, as the team played in front of their home fans in a regular season game for the first time since February 2020. The student section made their presence known throughout the game, both with the return of several Villanova traditions and in relentless booing of Mountaineer junior guard Jalen Benjamin, who committed six turnovers.
“It was definitely exciting, finally getting to have the fans out there,” Moore said. “But really it’s just exciting to be back playing with my guys, my teammates out there together, that's what was most exciting.”
After Tuesday’s initial tuneup game, Villanova faces an immediate test on a national stage, as the fourth ranked Wildcats travel to Los Angeles Friday to take on second ranked UCLA. The Bruins, led by junior guard and Preseason All-American Johnny Juzang, present a vastly different test than the Mountaineers, but Wright believes that the Wildcats are prepared for the early season battle.
“I think we’re ready to play a team like that,” Wright said. “It’s gonna be a good test for us.”