Gillespie leads No. 10 Nova past Xavier in Big East opener
By Aaron Bracy
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 7, 32-25, at the break. Xavier got within 4 early in the half, but the Musketeers could not get closer.