Villanova will face Creighton for the Big East title

NEW YORK — There it was, Connecticut’s point joining the Big East Conference, a jam-packed Madison Square Garden for a late Friday night game in March… “Let’s go Huskies” fills the air in the Garden. UConn fans, much of the 19,812-strong crowd inside, stood in joy or in arms.

Villanova played foil. Right now the Wildcats are playing there so well, the school every team in the Big East wants to beat, seemingly unfazed by crowds or stakes.

The Wildcats advance to the Big East Final on Saturday after a 63-60 win over UConn. Since 2015, Villanova has played 23 games at Madison Square Garden and won 20. The Cats have made six Big East Semifinals appearances in that span and won them all. Next up was Creighton, who had earned his way to the Finals earlier by decimating Providence, the Big East regular season champion.

This game really didn’t follow a usual Villanova script. The top two scorers of the season weren’t the top scorers that night. Jermaine “What back spasms?” Samuels was scoring from the start, inside and out, scoring 21 points. Brandon Slater provided energy and 15 points, and punctuated it all by blocking a UConn shot that looked like it was about to be a UConn dunk.

Villanova played a lot of small balls and went past UConn from the field, the three-point line, and made their foul shots. With just over 3 minutes to play, the Wildcats had committed five turnovers.

Villanova must have been equally efficient, since UConn matched it, with only 5 turnovers at that time. The sixth came just then, Slater giving a pass, Samuels grabbing it.

The Wildcats seemed to have it all, but threw it all away, taking a 60-53 lead with just under 5 minutes to go. But 60 wasn’t enough, and Villanova was still at 60 with 15.4 seconds left, Jermaine Samuels at the foul line for the start of a one-on-one. Samuels did the first, took four dribbles, put the second gently off the edge for a 62-57 lead.

So was that enough? Not yet. A three-pointer from Connecticut’s Andre Jackson hit high from the rim and fell 8.6 seconds from time. UConn in the 62-60s.

An excellent high-wire inbound pass catch by Justin Moore, possibly saving it all, was sent to Gillespie, who hit a free throw with 3 seconds left. He missed the second free throw, but a UConn half-court attempt didn’t find its mark.

Not just because of his game. Because he played.

“We had a chiropractor from Philadelphia, we had a masseuse with us,” Wright said of Samuels. “He couldn’t make it through the walk-through today. He couldn’t stand long enough to walk around. I am amazed at him. Once he started… he already did, he suffered injuries. He played with a broken finger last year. He had surgery, missed all summer. … We just supported it, put it there.

Jordan Longino scored to give Villanova a late seven-point lead.

“I thought it was a huge game,” Wright said. “We got stuck at the end of the shot clock. They denied everyone. Jordan went to drive it. He got stuck, spun, hit a fadeaway at the end of the shot clock. He’s a brave kid for a freshman. We need his depth, we really need it.

Other than when UConn scored the game’s first scorer, and before Villanova immediately responded with a three from Samuels, the remainder of the first 10 minutes was spent with neither team holding more than a two-point lead. points, which led to the negotiation and so on. Eight lead changes in those first 10 minutes.

The Huskies had the early advantage in three-point efficiency, going 4 of 8 for a 21-19 lead with 7 minutes remaining, while ‘Nova went 5 of 14 (and only 1 of 4 starting by two points at that time.)

The points in the paint with 4 minutes left in the half was 12-0 for UConn. But not as big an advantage as it looks, as it was a chess game, Villanova living with that, as the Wildcats had warmed up from three – Samuels, Brandon Slater and Caleb Daniels hitting each from deep for a 30-25 lead.

You would be quite clairvoyant. Moore and Gillespie were combined 1 for 6 from the field in the first half, 0 for 5 from three.

But Samuels and Slater had combined for 22 points at halftime, making five three-pointers between them. Caleb Daniels hit both three-point shots he tried.

Those 12 points from Samuels were especially notable since he didn’t start Thursday’s quarterfinal due to back spasms. If you want to watch what it means to be a fifth-year player in this kind of situation, go to the last seconds of the first half. Villanova was running to the end of the clock and the ball ended up with Samuels on the right wing. He drove to the painting, where there was heavy traffic in midtown Manhattan. A panicked float was all that was available? No, there was time for another dribble, Samuels finding contact, hitting a shot, getting a foul too, 1.3 seconds on the shot clock, 9.5 seconds left in the half.

That extra second gave Villanova their 33-32 margin at halftime. Or did UConn pick it up on the other end? No, the UConn Garden contingent went nuts when an official decided Slater got into position in time to take a charge.

And Villanova was keen to get Moore into the flow of the offense. He scored inside, then an 18-foot pull-up. Slater then hit a corner three from a Gillespie pass, before Slater had UConn big man Adama Sanogo on him on the wing. Slater drove and arced a shot over the big man to give Villanova a 42-38 lead. Villanova’s only miss in six straight possessions was a missed dunk by Moore. Samuels and Slater had continued their hot streak. Then Eric Dixon, sick this week made his first appearance of the second half. Left open at the top, Dixon’s three-pointer filled the net. Villanova, playing foil, led eight points, 10 minutes from time. It just wasn’t over.

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