On Tuesday night on the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, the tension was palpable. With a Big East regular season title possibly hanging in the balance, the game received top billing. It did not disappoint.
Forty minutes of basketball were played between the #8 Providence Friars and #10 Villanova Wildcats. More than half of that - 20:41, to be precise - were played with a margin of three points or less. Just 2:20 of the game came with a team leading by more than six.
Still, despite how close the game looked, Villanova had control from start to finish. The Wildcats led for nearly 95 percent of the game, 37:55 of playing time. Jay Wright’s team played one basket ahead of Providence all night long. In many ways, that one basket came in the game’s opening minute.
The Providence student section was ready for Tuesday night’s battle. Two hours before the doors opened, students were lined up outside the building. The Wildcats usually draw crowds on the road as the Big East’s top dog, but this environment rivaled any that they have faced.
Fortunately for Jay Wright, his players were up for the challenge.
Shooting towards that student section - decked out in pink for Providence’s annual pink-out - to open the game, Villanova got the ball for their first possession after stopping the Friars to open the game. Jay Wright called for a high screen from Eric Dixon with Justin Moore handling the ball.
Dixon came out to the wing to pick Providence’s A.J. Reeves. Reeves would cut below the screener, while Nate Watson dropped to defend a drive from Moore.
With Reeves giving Moore space on the outside, Villanova’s guard didn’t need to drive to the basket. Moore fired the wide open three and hit nothing but net.
Villanova abused Providence on high ball screens all game long. They got space for their shooters off of it from the opening tip. pic.twitter.com/JZFNghVYDX— Matt St. Jean (@mattstdream) February 16, 2022
This play would set the tone and be a sign of things to come.
With under five minutes to play in the half, the Friars had played their way back into it. Noah Horchler and Jermaine Samuels exchanged baskets as the lead went back and forth.
Jay Wright called for another high pick and roll for his hottest shooter. Once again, the Friars played it poorly and gave Moore too much space.
After the game’s opening minutes, Ed Cooley inserted guard Alyn Breed into the lineup for his defensive abilities. With Samuels screening Breed up high, the sophomore went over the screener to cut down on Moore’s space.
Then, inexplicably, he switched with Nate Watson. Breed stuck with Samuels, leaving the dropping Nate Watson to close out on Moore.
Moore cocked and fired the wide-open shot. His three-pointer fell. It was Moore’s fourth made three of the half. Villanova led 34-32, and the Wildcats would not trail again.
The Friars would not lead again after this Moore shot. Not sure what Breed is doing here. He comes over the top of the screener but then doesn't attack the shooter. pic.twitter.com/MAA80TcE6E— Matt St. Jean (@mattstdream) February 16, 2022
Less than two minutes later, the Wildcats were running the same action for their other star guard. Dixon screened Al Durham, and Collin Gillespie made the Friars pay for giving him space.
By this point, you know the story. Every time the game got close, Jay Wright turned to the high pick and roll. Every time, the shooter was given space and hit the shot. I’m sure it’s no surprise what Villanova’s head coach turned to in a one-possession game in the final minute.
Providence’s offense was clicking. The Friars scored on four consecutive possessions in the last two minutes. Every time, Villanova had an answer, but Providence was not going away. Not until Gillespie put the final nail in the coffin.
This time, it was Samuels with the high screen on A.J. Reeves. Noah Horchler saw it coming and dropped in anticipation of Reeves fighting over the top of the screen.
Instead, Reeves went under. He assumed Horchler would switch onto Gillespie and close on the shooter. Like on the game’s first basket, the Friars played a drive from the ball handler. This afforded Gillespie the time and space to dribble to the top of the key and calmly end the game.
The game began and ended with the Wildcats creating the same conflict for Providence. The Friars never adjusted.
The dagger. Reeves going under the screen like he did on Villanova's first shot. pic.twitter.com/hwCkjheW4E— Matt St. Jean (@mattstdream) February 16, 2022
In the face of a top-ten opponent and perhaps the rowdiest environment any of his players had played in front of, Jay Wright turned to a simple concept. Wright knew that the Friars would be conservative when using their big men on the perimeter. None of them are particularly quick, and they would have to give Villanova’s guards space as a result. That space was all Gillespie and Moore needed to ruin the biggest night in Dunkin’ Donuts Center history.