The Villanova Wildcats clinched the Big East regular season title with a 72-60 victory over the Creighton Bluejays on Wednesday night, led by 24 points from Justin Moore. The ‘Cats raced out to a massive early lead behind sharp shooting and stellar defense, but were then rocked as star senior guard Collin Gillespie exited with an injury. The Wildcats held on through a late Creighton barrage to secure the victory.
“It’s obviously bittersweet,” Jay Wright said postgame. “Great effort by our guys, really proud.”
Going into the game, headlines centered around the presumptive Big East regular season championship game, as the Bluejays would have clinched the regular season crown with a victory and a win over Butler in their regular season finale Saturday.
Controversy also swirled around Creighton head coach Greg McDermott, as news was leaked Tuesday of racially insensitive comments he made to the team in a speech after a loss against Xavier. McDermott reportedly would have been willing to resign from his position if his players had asked him to, but he remained on the sideline Wednesday night.
For the Wildcats, pregame headlines were much more positive, as Villanova hoped to claim a share of the regular season conference championship for the sixth time in the last seven years. In addition, the team celebrated Senior Night, honoring seniors Kevin Hoehn, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Jermaine Samuels, and Gillespie in a pregame ceremony. Cosby-Roundtree, Gillespie, and Samuels were all crucial parts of the 2018 National Championship winning squad, making an indelible impact on the Villanova program. After the game, a visibly emotional Samuels knelt down and kissed the Villanova logo at center court, showing how much the program means to him.
After the tip, Creighton jumped out to a 5-0 lead after a three from Denzel Mahoney. The Wildcats answered with suffocating defense and a 17-2 run, punctuated by threes from Gillespie, Samuels, and Justin Moore. The three triples made in the first 5:46were more than the Wildcats made in the entirety of Sunday’s loss to Butler.
At the 6:40 mark, Gillespie landed awkwardly, clutching his knee. He was forced to leave the game for examinations by team doctors, and he would not return.
“Our trainer says it looks pretty serious. We’re gonna get an MRI tomorrow morning, Wright said. "I wanna be honest with you, he’s not saying [Gillespie] will be fine.”
Despite Gillespie’s absence, the Wildcats continued to score at will, with Jeremiah Robinson-Earl stepping in at point guard.
“I wasn’t prepared, but we’re always prepared for the most difficult situation,” Robinson-Earl said. “You’ve just always gotta be ready for every situation and just execute what Coach tells us.”
With the Bluejays down 16, McDermott was forced to call a Bluejays timeout with 5:43 remaining in the half. Star Bluejays guard Marcus Zegarowski hit a three and looked to swing the momentum in Creighton’s favor, but Caleb Daniels answered with a triple of his own to keep the lead at 16.
Ending the half, the Bluejays had no success offensively, except through center Ryan Kalkbrenner, three inches taller than anyone on the Wildcats roster. Despite Kalkbrenner’s efforts, Villanova extended the lead to 42-23 after Robinson-Earl ended the half with a layup.
The defensive effort was much better than in the first game against Creighton, when the Bluejays shot nearly 60% from the field. Wright remarked on the defensive difference, saying “We were connected. We got into individually guarding their three point shooters and not helping each other out last game, we feared their threes so much… We played much better team defense tonight.”
The Wildcats shot 54.5% from the field in the half, and at a 35% clip from beyond the arc. Creighton struggled, shooting just 29% from the field and 25% from three point range. Justin Moore was the only scorer from either side to enter double digits with 10 points.
“It was just the way my teammates were finding me,” Moore said. “We were all sharing the ball, it’s hard to stop us. Just trying to get in the lane and make plays for my teammates, and when they’re not open, I scored myself, so we’re just reading the defense. I think we did a great job of finding each other.”
Moore caught fire in the second half, scoring or assisting on 11 of the first 15 Wildcat points. However, more aggressive defense from the Bluejays resulted in a 17-0 Creighton run, cutting the lead to seven.
After a steal from Ballock cut the Villanova lead to 59-54, the closest since 15:24 remained in the first half, Brandon Slater hit a three to put the ‘Cats up eight with 2:45 left to play. A three point play from Moore brought the lead back to double digits, and Cole Swider hit a three with 54 seconds remaining to put the game out of reach, and to secure the title.
Wright downplayed winning the regular season crown, saying “We don’t really talk about it. We will at the end of the season, and it's great for our seniors, it's great for our school… but all that stuff we’ll talk about when the year is over.”
The Wildcats wrap up the regular season with a trip to Providence on Saturday afternoon, followed by the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City.