VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — Villanova coach Jay Wright leaned on Collin Gillespie in crunch time, and the sophomore guard delivered.
Gillespie scored 16 of his game-high 24 points in the second half to lead No. 10 Villanova to a 68-62 victory over Xavier on Monday night in the Big East Conference opener for both teams.
“I really liked his decision making in the second half,” Wright said of his point guard. “He made great decisions on when to take it at them, when to get someone else a shot, and when to take a 3.”
Gillespie got hot after halftime and drained a key 3-pointer with 4:37 remaining that gave the Wildcats a 60-49 lead and some needed breathing room. The Musketeers had been inching closer behind the strong interior play of Naji Marshall, who netted 10 of 12 Xavier points during one second-half stretch.
“Just be a leader vocally and leading by example on the court,” Gillespie said.
Jermaine Samuels added 14 points for Villanova (10-2), which has won six in a row. The Wildcats hadn’t played since a 56-55 victory over then-No. 1 Kansas on Dec. 21.
The victory was more of the same for the Wildcats, who have dominated the Big East since the conference realignment in 2013. They have won five of the six regular-season conference titles and four of six tournament titles, including the last three. Villanova won a pair of national titles, in 2016 and 2018, during that stretch.
Wright knows another Big East title isn’t going to be easy, especially given that Villanova starts three sophomores and a freshman, along with a junior.
“That’s what the Big East is going to be like every night, home or away,” he said. “It’s going to be a grinder. There are just so many good teams in this league. This is going to be incredible this season. It’s a great learning experience for us.”
Marshall had 19 points to pace Xavier (9-3). The Musketeers were just outside of the Top 25 this week, receiving 58 votes.
“I have a ton of respect for the way they play, but I was really disappointed in our play,” Xavier coach Travis Steele said. “I didn’t think we played really well. Villanova probably had a lot to do with that. We have to make better decisions with the ball, we have to block out. We knew what was coming and I didn’t think we handled it well.”
Villanova led by as many as 17 points in the first half, but had that advantage trimmed to seven, 32-25, at the break. Xavier got within four early in the half, but the Musketeers could not get closer.
The Musketeers were within six, 63-57, after Tyrique Jones’ hook with 2:03 left and had a chance to cut it to three with just over a minute left. But Marshall’s 3-point try went off the back rim.
Samuels hit a pull-up jumper with 57.3 seconds left to make it 65-57.
Samuels’ driving layup with 10:03 left in the first half made it 21-8 Wildcats, capping a 17-0 run over a little more than six minutes. The Wildcats’ lead still was 13 when Gillespie hit a 3-pointer with 6½ minutes left to make it 26-13. But Xavier closed the half by scoring 12 of the last 18 points.
Xavier finished 1 for 11 from 3-point range, but Steele wasn’t upset with that statistic. He was disappointed, though, with the Musketeers’ 14 turnovers and 12 offensive rebounds that led to 11 second-chance points for Villanova.
“I don’t care about our 3-point shooting; it didn’t cost us the game,” Steele said. “I think we’re one of the best two-point field goal team in country. That’s who we are, and we’re going to play to our strengths.”
Xavier: Despite the defeat, the Musketeers still have a chance to get off to a strong start in conference play with three of the next four and five of the next seven at home in the comfy confines of the Cintas Center. Xavier has won all eight games at their on-campus arena this season and has the seventh-best home winning percentage in the nation all-time with a 266-41 (.866) mark in the 20-year history of the building.
Villanova: The Wildcats will have a busy two months of conference play. After playing 11 nonconference games in 57 days, Villanova plays its final 20 contests over a 66-day stretch that began with Monday’s game against Xavier. Of those 20 games, 18 are against Big East opponents, with the exception of nonleague matchups versus UConn and Temple.
Xavier: Hosts St. John’s on Sunday.
Villanova: At Marquette on Saturday.
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