Gillespie Leads Wildcats to 71-56 Win at Penn

Gillespie led the team to the win with 26 points, a season high.

PHILADELPHIA, PA --- Penn went into the game with a plan and executed it to perfection. It took just two Wildcats to ruin it.

On Wednesday night, Villanova defeated the University of Pennsylvania 71-56 despite a Quaker gameplan that stymied typical Villanova ball movement. The Wildcats had just seven assists in the game, yet behind 26 points from graduate point guard Collin Gillespie and 16 from senior forward Brandon Slater, the Wildcats emerged with their second straight Big 5 win at the Palestra.

“We want to play the way Penn plays against everybody and then figure out [how to] take away the strengths of the other opponent,” Penn head coach Steve Donahue said. “And one of them, we did. They have a chance, if they only have seven assists, that they're doing a lot of one-on-one work. That's not typically how they win.”

The Penn defensive gameplan minimized switching and help defense, and because of that, whenever a Villanova player drove into the paint, they found themselves with a one-on-one matchup without any open options on the perimeter. Gillespie, Slater and redshirt senior guard Caleb Daniels, who added 12 points for the Wildcats, were able to capitalize on those opportunities, but the rest of the team shot just 24% from the field.

“It was an ugly game,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “But it's good when you can win those. I was proud of our guys.”

Penn struggled in the first half, combining for just 21 points and trailing by 12 at the break. Star sophomore guard Jordan Dingle went 2-9 in the half, scoring just six points. 

Dingle caught fire in the second half, looking as if he was about to drag the Quakers back into the game on several occasions. However, Gillespie always found the answer for Villanova, terrorizing the Penn defense and attacking the basket. Gillespie finished the game with zero assists, the first time he has gone without an assist since Mar. 23, 2019.

“I think part of that's what makes him really good,” Donahue said of Gillespie. “He understood tonight that … we're not going to let him ping pong the ball around. I think he sensed that fairly early that ‘I'm probably gonna have to score in different ways here if they make a mistake.’ And that's what makes him so good.”

Wright acknowledged Gillespie’s atypical statline, yet felt that it was needed on a cold-shooting night for most of the Villanova roster.

“You can look at the NBA, and that's what so many of those games come down to,” Wright said. “There's so many good players, everybody's switching everything, and then somebody has got to be able to go get their own shot. You hope you don't have to rely on that, but against the best teams, the toughest teams, you do.”

Dingle finished the game with 21 points, his sixth 20 point game of the season for Penn. Sophomore forward Max Martz was the only other scorer in double figures for the Quakers, finishing with 12 points on 4-7 shooting, all from beyond the arc.

“We need Jordan to do that from the get-go,” Donahue said. “Not that he doesn't want to do that, but there's not a sense of, okay, this is a real good opponent, how are we going to survive the first 10 minutes of the game? I thought we were feeling [them] out, and Villanova was going at us. You got to take that step and get that comfort level from the start, especially an opponent like Villanova.”

The Wildcats raced out to a 4-0 lead within the opening minute and quickly extended it to 9-1, but the Quakers scored eight straight to tie the game again. However, the Wildcats then went on a 13-0 run to take a commanding 22-9 lead, a lead they would never relinquish. The Quakers cut the lead to single digits several times, but Gillespie and Slater always kept Penn at arm’s length.

Slater had a nearly perfect shooting night for Villanova, making 7-8 shots from the field and 2-3 from three point range.

"We just work on being great all-around players,” Slater said. “We practice catch to shoot and playing off of our jump shot first. At the beginning of the game they were playing off my shot, so I couldn't get into the lane. They were sticking with our shooters and they weren't giving Eric an easy way to catch the ball in the post. So I had the opportunity then to take the ball to the basket."

Graduate forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree appeared in his second straight game, playing two minutes and grabbing a rebound.

With the win, the Wildcats improved to 5-2, 2-0 in Big 5 play. Both wins have come at the Palestra, but despite fond memories of the venue from the past two games and a high school victory over Cosby-Roundtree’s Neumann-Goretti High, Gillespie was looking forward to moving on from the venue.

“I like the Palestra. It’s a really historic venue,” Gillespie said. “You remember stuff like that, but then you have other things that you want to get done and accomplished.”

The Wildcats continue Big 5 action at the Finneran Pavilion against Saint Joseph’s on Saturday, before wrapping up the competition against Temple at home on Dec. 29.