A classic rivalry and even after a few years apart since the conference breakup, old Big East foes Villanova and Syracuse reunited for a showdown at Madison Square Garden that brought back many familiar feelings — from an energized crowd, a scrappy game, and plenty of momentum swings that led to an exciting finish.
In the end, the No. 6-ranked Wildcats pulled away in the second half and defeated the Orange, 67-53.
“Great college basketball atmosphere, it was so cool starting that game — feel that place rocking and hear those fans, to see Syracuse Orange in there just like old times,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “It was really cool. I hope our guys really enjoyed that. I could feel it from the time we walked out onto the court. They are a really explosive offensive team, with so many weapons. I was really proud of our second half effort. We struggled the first half with their zone, and we struggled guarding them a little bit.”
Despite a cold-shooting first-half performance, the ‘Cats kept it close and only trailed Syracuse by three at the half, 29-26.
“Our first half defense was good,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We played really good defense, but those second chances really hurt us. Offensively, we struggled. They’re a really good defensive team, but it’s a physical game and we weren’t as physical as we needed to be.”
Villanova’s tenaciousness on the glass persisted throughout the remainder of the game. The Wildcats continued to shoot, eventually finding their way out of the cold-shooting streak.
They made only three shots in the final 13 minutes of the first half, but they had already made three baskets in the opening minutes of the second.
The Orange continued to hang around and stay within reach, until Villanova went on a late 12-2 run to pull away, a stretch highlighted by a Jermaine Samuels dunk that resulted in the first double-digit lead by either team with just 4:16 remaining in the game.
“I saw it developing, because I saw Collin do that many times before, but I knew even after the dunk, I knew they weren’t going to go away,” Samuels said. “I was thinking next play and just trying to get everybody together to do the same thing.”
The Wildcats topped of the scoring surge with a Justin Moore jumper and a Caleb Daniels three-pointer.
For Villanova, Justin Moore led the way with 18 points and six rebounds. Collin Gillespie had 14 points, five assists and three steals. Jermaine Samuels chipped in 13 points and nine rebounds. Caleb Daniels had 11 points off the bench, including a 3-for-4 three-point shooting performance in the second half alone.
Jimmy Boeheim paced the Orange with 21 points. Joe Girard III had 11 points, four boards and three assists. Jesse Edwards had 10 points and seven rebounds.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Tale of two halves
Villanova entered Tuesday night’s game shooting 42.7% from long range, the seventh-highest team three-point shooting percentage in the country.
The Wildcats got solid looks, but couldn’t capitalize. Credit Syracuse, however, as it started to move better in its zone to limit Villanova on the perimeter.
Villanova shot just 9-of-37 (24.3%) overall and 5-of-28 (17.9%) from deep in the first half.
In the second half, ‘Nova turned it up offensively and started to find a rhythm from long range.
The Wildcats shot a much improved 7-of-15 from long range to begin the second half. They cooled off a bit afterwards, but Syracuse continued to hang around until Villanova used a late run to seal the game.
“They do a lot of things, and it’s not like anyone else’s zone,” Wright said. “We really struggled with it in the first half. I think it took a whole half for us to figure it out. Even for the guys to be comfortable with the way they were flying at our shooters and the way they protected the rim.”
Wildcats’ dominate the glass
Villanova may have limited length and size, but it definitely played bigger than its listed on paper. Rebounding and frontcourt play were a couple of the Wildcats’ deficiencies or question marks, but there didn’t seem to be much doubt in that area on Tuesday night.
The Wildcats controlled the glass all game long and was aggressive in rebounding on both ends of the court, but especially on the offensive glass.
They outrebounded the Orange, 57-36. Of their many rebounds, 27 of them came on the offensive end, which translated into 25 second-chance points.
Villanova had more rebounds (57) than attempted three-point shots (50).
“That’s a good number,” Wright said. “It’s an area that we had been struggling with to be honest, but we’ve been getting better the last couple games and we knew this was gonna be a test today to see if we could continue that path of improvement.”
Swider’s revenge game didn’t go as planned
One of the key storylines entering the Villanova-Syracuse game was Cole Swider playing against his former team.
Swider, who spent his first three seasons at Villanova, averaged 5.2 points per game and shot 35.7% from long range over his 77 games with the ‘Cats.
Through his first eight games with Syracuse, he entered Tuesday night averaging 13.1 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Swider hit the first three of the game to open scoring, but didn’t do much on the offensive end after that. He was active on the glass, however, and finished with a game-high 12 rebounds.
“He rebounded, but he didn’t get many looks,” Boeheim said. “They know he doesn’t do well when he puts it on the floor, so they limited his catch-and-shoot opportunities.”
He finished with five points on 2-of-7 shooting.
“I can’t say I enjoyed it to be honest,” Wright said of facing Swider. “I tried to not think about it, we hugged after the game, but very uncomfortable to be honest with you. I hope I don’t have to do that again.”