After falling in overtime to No. 2 UCLA on the road on Friday night, Villanova head coach Jay Wright and his two veteran leaders, graduate guard Collin Gilespie and graduate forward Jermaine Samuels, shared the same sentiment: “We just didn’t finish.” The Wildcats led for much of the game and had a chance to win in regulation, but the Bruins were the better team in overtime, coming away with an 86-77 win.
This highly anticipated, marquee matchup did not disappoint on either side. All five of Villanova’s starters scored in double figures, led by Samuels, who finished with 20 points and five rebounds. Gillespie and junior guard Justin Moore finished with 18 and 14 points respectively, along with senior forward Brandon Slater, who added 10 points and six rebounds. Sophomore forward Eric Dixon recorded a near double-double with 11 points and nine rebounds.
With the departure of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl after last season, the ‘Cats need scoring in the post, and through two games, Dixon is proving he is the man for the job.
“He did a really good job defending and rebounding,” Gillespie said when asked about Dixon’s performance. “He played really hard on ball defense and in switches on the perimeter.”
After playing ten guys in their season opener, only seven Wildcats played significant minutes on Friday night. Senior guard Caleb Daniels played 24 minutes off the bench and scored just four points, while junior guard Chris Arcidiacono played seven minutes.
“Our lack of depth definitely hurt us. We gotta get our young guys going,” said Coach Wright, “A lot of them have been hurt and just haven’t practiced a lot. I didn’t feel like it was fair to put them in a game like this, but we’ve got to get them in there. We’re going to need them.”
Despite physical defense from the ‘Cats, UCLA standout and preseason March Madness Player of the Year Johnny Juzang still recorded 25 points on 9-of-24 shooting. The ‘Cats threw various defenders at Juzang including Samuels and Slater, who held the 36% three-point shooter to just 1-of-8 from distance.
Juzang was not alone in the UCLA offense as he was one of four Bruins to score in double figures. Junior guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. recorded a double-double with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Senior guard Jules Bernard and junior guard Tyger Campbell added 16 and 14 points, respectively.
The game was back-and-forth from the jump, with Juzang striking first one minute in followed by an immediate response from Gillespie on his signature pull-up jumper in the paint. The ‘Cats offensive struggles were evident in the first four minutes of action, shooting just 2-of-10 from the field, trailing 6-4.
UCLA built their first substantial lead halfway through the half on a 11-4 run giving them a 17-8 advantage. The ‘Cats responded with a run of their own sparked by two drawn charging fouls by Samuels and Slater, capped off with back-to-back three-pointers from Gillespie and Samuels.
The ‘Cats regained control of the lead with under two minutes in the half before Juzang evaded the defense on two straight possessions. Juzang scored as the half came to an end to give the Bruins a two point lead heading into the break.
Gillespie led the way for the ‘Cats in the first half with 12 of the team’s 30 points. The Wildcats tallied ten points off of the Bruins’ 14 turnovers in the half and held Juzang to just six points, both wins on the defensive end.
The second half got off to a hot start with four lead changes before the first media timeout when the ‘Cats held a one point lead after a Slater basket and a charge drawn by Samuels.
The teams continued to trade baskets until Villanova was able to pull away and build a double-digit advantage, leading 60-50 at the 9:24 mark. The ‘Cats had momentum in their favor on both ends of the floor, but two defensive mistakes allowed Campbell to score back-to-back threes, quickly cutting Villanova’s lead to four.
“In that spurt, we could’ve separated or even just kept the lead at ten,” Wright said. “But instead it went ten, seven, four.”
Samuels was able to respond with a three and settle the ‘Cats, but the Bruins did not let up. Following the third media timeout, UCLA scored six straight to tighten the gap to just two points.
At the 3:55 mark, after sitting with four fouls, Moore checked back in the game to try and help the ‘Cats close the game. Slater converted on a driving layup giving the ‘Cats a 65-61 lead, but two free throws from Juzang on a shooting foul by Dixon allowed UCLA to get back within a basket.
Moore responded with another basket on the next possession, but another foul on Juzang, who went 6-6 from the line in the game, cut the lead to two once again. An empty offensive possession for the ‘Cats followed by missed defensive rebounds allowed Bernard to convert on a floater in the paint to tie the game with 30 seconds left in regulation.
UCLA had fouls to give in Villanova’s final possession preventing the Wildcats from getting in an offensive set. Despite the multiple stops in play, the ‘Cats were able to get a good look with Moore driving to the basket, missing a contested layup as time expired and sending the game to overtime.
Villanova struck first in overtime, with Dixon drawing a foul and sinking both free throws. UCLA responded with a quick basket to tie it back up at 69. Two empty possessions for the ‘Cats led to two straight baskets from Juzang and Jaquez giving the Bruins a five point lead.
The Wildcats had chances offensively and were able to score eight more points before the final buzzer, but they were unable to counteract the Bruins’ strong rebounding and free throw shooting. UCLA outrebounded Villanova 7-4 in overtime, including five offensive rebounds, and went 12-12 from the charity stripe.
“We hung around, we had our chances,” Wright said. “We did a lot of good things tonight, but we have to start doing them more consistently.
“They gutted it out and we didn’t.”
Wright’s teams at Villanova have always been known for their ability to handle tough games like this and do all of the little things in order to pull out a win, but tonight was a different story.
“They did a little more than we did at the end of the game,” Gillespie said. “We felt like we were ready and prepared coming in here, but it just came down to the final few minutes.”
Villanova shot 41.2% from the field and 45.8% from three, while UCLA recorded 46.9% and 37.5% in the respective categories. The biggest challenge for the ‘Cats was rebounding, getting outrebounded by UCLA 46-32 for the game.
“Continue to be physical, go back to work, emphasize it even more,” Samuels said when asked how the team will improve on the boards. “We have to take it upon us. Take the responsibility to get better at that aspect of our game.”
“We have a lot of work to do defensively and we’ve got a lot of work to do on rebounding,” Wright said in his closing remarks of the night.
Villanova has a few days to regroup and adjust before they host Howard University on Tuesday night. Howard only played five games last year due to complications with Covid, but the Bison are currently 2-0 on the season. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.