By: Rich Flanagan
PHILADELPHIA-Collin Gillespie drilled the opening three-pointer of the game even with Nate Pierre-Louis, Temple’s premiere defender, closing out on him. The very next possession ended the same way with the 6-foot-3 Villanova point guard nailing another triple from the other side of the three-point line. He was up to 12 points by the 8:59 mark of the first half and the Archbishop Wood product was in a groove.
It became the focal storyline of the Wildcats’ 76-56 victory over the Owls to claim their sixth Big 5 title in the last seven seasons. Gillespie finished with a season-high 29 points which included shooting 7-for-11 from behind the arc.
While it was his second 20-point game in the last four, Gillespie saw chances as Temple’s defenders were going under screens and freeing him up to knock down open jumpers.
“I was just catching to shoot when I had opportunities,” Gillespie said. “Our big men and other guys were dribble handing off and setting great screens to get me open. That’s a credit to my teammates for finding me early on. I was confident stepping in to shoot.”
He hit seven of the Wildcats 17 three-pointers, one shy of a season high. He led the way for Villanova (19-6) in the opening 20 minutes with 15 of their 26 points. As Gillespie controlled things from the perimeter at one end, Quinton Rose, who recently became the American Athletic Conference’s all-time leading scorer, paced the Owls with 14 first-half points at the other.
He converted a tough finish past Cole Swider (six points) to put Temple (13-12) up by two with 4:21 remaining in the opening half. He nailed a smooth pull-up over Brandon Slater to give the Owls a six-point cushion then finished off a phenomenal first half with a putback just before the buzzer to give his side a four-point advantage heading into the locker room.
Rose, who finished with 22 points, did not focus on his performance but instead gave credit where it was due to Gillespie.
“You have to tip your cap to him,” Rose said. “He hit a lot of tough shots.”
Pierre-Louis followed up behind Rose with 16 points and 11 rebounds but they were only the Owls players in double figures. The next highest was Monty Scott with seven.
Temple first-year head coach Aaron McKie, whose team only hit two three-pointers to the Wildcats’ 17, noted that when a player like Gillespie is shooting the way he was on Sunday there’s very little his team can do.
“Gillespie was just great,” McKie said. “Sometimes when you’re playing against guys like that, you’re not going to have any answers. He trumped us this afternoon. He made some tough shots.”
With former Vikings head coach John Mosco in attendance at the Liacouras Center, Gillespie turned in one of his most dominant scoring performances of the season.
Mosco helped develop Gillespie into the player that claimed the 2017 Philadelphia Catholic League MVP, a league and PIAA Class 5A title and left the school as arguably the most accomplished player in school history. Gillespie finished his Archbishop Wood career with 1,132 career points and he’s well on his way to surpassing the 1k mark with the Wildcats in only his third season.
For Mosco, Sunday’s performance against the Owls was just another example of the tough and poised floor general so many other programs missed out on.
“I’m so honored and happy to see him succeeding and that Villanova took a chance on him,” Mosco said. “He’s rewarding them with his play and proving everybody wrong every year. People are constantly saying to him, ‘Why are you staying there? They’re going to recruit over you.’ He just takes on all of that because he’s a competitor.”
The Wildcats made quick work of a second-half turnaround with three consecutive triples to put themselves in front, 35-30 with 17:41 left. Naturally, Gillespie finished that run with a triple of his own. A triple by Jermaine Samuels (10 points) then another by freshman Justin Moore (nine) two possessions later and Villanova was in the driver seat, leading 43-32.
The next time the Owls would get the deficit to less than 10 was after a Pierre-Louis hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to eight. Temple kept things within striking distance for the next few possessions but an and-one by Samuels at the 9:05 mark halted any potential comeback.
Gillespie hit three straight three-pointers over a 1:58 span to push the lead to 65-47.
Wildcats head coach Jay Wright liked his team’s response to a slow first half and how they adapted to what Temple was trying to take away.
“We’re always searching for threes,” Wright said. “Certain teams take that away and it opens up other things. As far as this year, we haven’t been great at recognizing that because we’re a younger team. We call it “mixing it up” where we’re reading what they’re taking away. That takes time and we’re getting better at that.”
Following another Big 5 title, the Wildcats focus returns to Big East play and Gillespie’s improved performance in the scoring department this season has them thinking another league title is within reach. He’s still getting into the paint at will, similar to how he did when he was leading the Vikings, but his scoring ability has always put him at another level.
Getting into the paint and finding his teammates is his priority in Wright’s offense but he’ll continue to look for ways to get himself shots as the season heads into the final stretch.
“Normally, I just go in there to score first then our other guys are cutting off the ball,” Gillespie said. “They do a really good job of doing that. I’m just trying to be aggressive when I get in there then the other guys move really well without the ball.”