At 4:30 Tuesday afternoon, Providence students filled the Dunkin’ Donuts Center with cheers ahead of their meeting with Villanova. By 10:30, Collin Gillespie silenced them. The preseason Big East Player of the Year showed exactly why he earned that honor with a career-high 33 points against the Friars.
The #8 Providence Friars (21-3, 11-2) hosted the #10 Villanova Wildcats (20-6, 13-3) Tuesday night at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. It was just the second meeting between two top-ten teams in the history of the venue. Like in the first game, it was the visitors that came out on top.
Villanova came out of the gates firing and took control early. Justin Moore, playing through an ankle injury, hit the team’s first shot. He would make five of his first seven from the field, three of which came from beyond the arc, as the Wildcats opened an 18-14 lead heading into the second media timeout. Moore accounted for 13 of those 18.
The Friars attacked the paint with success early on, but their three-point shooting left much to be desired. Providence missed five consecutive shots from deep to open the game before A.J. Reeves knocked one down with 9:24 to play in the first half. That shot pulled Providence within one.
Nate Watson and Noah Horchler both hit two free throws to answer Villanova buckets before Ed Croswell gave the Friars their first lead of the night with 7:16 on the clock. That was short-lived as Brandon Slater answered with a layup of his own twenty seconds later to put Villanova ahead 26-25. Jermaine Samuels would add a layup and complete the three-point play at the line to extend the Wildcats’ lead back to four with 5:23 left in the first half.
The Friars would respond quickly. Watson scored a layup on the next possession, and Horchler added Providence’s second three of the game less than a minute later to put them ahead once again. Like before, the Wildcats took the lead back the next time they touched the ball. This time, it was Jermaine Samuels who laid it in to put the Cats ahead 31-30. Horchler got a layup the next time the Friars had the ball, but Justin Moore hit another three to give Villanova a 34-32 lead. They would not trail again.
Moore and Gillespie would combine for 13 of Villanova’s 15 points to close the first half starting with Moore’s three-pointer. They shot 3-3 from deep over the final 3:17 as the Wildcats entered the break with a 46-39 lead.
In a game many expected to finish in the 50s, the Wildcats nearly hit that threshold in the opening half alone. Jay Wright’s squad was locked-in from the opening tip and consistently knocked down shots from deep. Villanova hit 7-of-14 looks from beyond the arc over the first twenty minutes by creating open shots for Moore and Gillespie off high ball screens. In contrast, the Friars hit just 3 of their 12 three-point attempts.
Things would remain much the same in the second half. While the Friars never had the lead, Ed Cooley’s squad was always within striking distance. That’s where Providence has been most dangerous this season. Collin Gillespie proved more dangerous.
Providence began the second half by attacking the paint with Nate Watson. The big man scored on the team’s first two possessions as Ed Cooley deployed the zone defense with success early. Then, Gillespie attacked the basket and scored five of the game’s next seven points, three of which came from the line.
The Wildcats would keep Providence at arm’s length for most of the first ten minutes in the second half. Every time the Friars pulled within a basket, Villanova would answer. That was until Bynum’s layup was followed by a missed three-pointer from Justin Moore. Al Durham hit his first shot from the field all night with 9:22 to play to tie the score at 64.
Yet again, the run was quickly answered by Villanova. Caleb Daniels silenced the crowd with his three-pointer on the next possession. The shot started a 9-2 Wildcat run that put the Friars right where they were at the start of the half. Villanova led 73-66 with 5:46 remaining in the most hyped Big East game of the season.
The experience of Jay Wright’s team showed as the clock wound down. In a hostile environment, his team hit every shot needed. Five times in the game’s final minutes, Providence pulled within a basket. Every time, Villanova answered to extend the lead. Brandon Slater and Eric Dixon each hit key layups late, with Dixon’s coming as he got behind Providence’s press, but Gillespie was the star of the show.
The veteran point guard hit a three-pointer with 3:01 left to put Villanova up five. He had ice in his veins as he calmly sank two free throws to push the lead back to four with 55 seconds on the clock. And with under half-a-minute remaining, Gillespie reached a new career high with a three-pointer that stuck a dagger into the hearts of Rhode Islanders.
Al Durham had just scored his second layup in as many possessions to keep the Friars within two points. Down 82-80, Ed Cooley needed the stop from his defense he hadn’t gotten all game. Thanks to Collin Gillespie, he was left frustrated once again. A miscommunication on a screen left Noah Horchler in no man’s land. All alone, Gillespie put the Friars to sleep.
After some free throws and a last-second three-pointer from Jared Bynum, the final score read Villanova 89, Providence 84.
Providence has performed well under pressure all season, but the lights may have gotten a bit too bright on Tuesday. After the game, coach Ed Cooley said, “I thought we made eight mistakes,” as he was surprised at his team’s execution in the closing minutes.
Thanks to Gillespie, Villanova amassed its highest scoring total in conference play and the most points allowed by a Providence opponent all season. Each team attempted 23 three-pointers, but Villanova held an 11-5 advantage to shots made from deep. Villanova’s shooting totals nearly matched the numbers Providence allowed at Marquette, where the Friars allowed 88 points.
The loss was Providence’s first at home all season and first at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center since January 25, 2020. That defeat also came at the hands of the Wildcats.
The meeting certainly lived up to the billing as the biggest matchup in the Big East this season. Despite the win, Villanova still remains in second place behind Providence. The two teams meet again at Finneran Pavillion on March 1. That game may be for the regular season title. For now, the Wildcats return home to play a winless Georgetown team in their senior day on Saturday. The Friars travel to Indianapolis to take on Butler this Sunday afternoon.