Creighton 45, Villanova 44.
That’s what the jumbotron at Madison Square Garden read. The clock between the two scores ticked under the three-minute mark, and a sold-out crowd watched tensely as the Wildcats, once up by as many as eight, operated on offense. They needed a basket. Jay Wright turned to the guy he’s turned to all season to get it.
Justin Moore fired a pass to his left. Collin Gillespie, named Big East Player of the Year this week, took the ball and pumped. He stepped back and to his left and fired the shot over the outstretched hand of Ryan Kalkbrenner.
Like it has every other time for Gillespie in the clutch, the ball hit nothing but net. The shot felt inevitable. Villanova led.
After an Arthur Kaluma miss, it was Gillespie with the ball once again. Samuels set a high screen, creating just enough space for the fifth-year star to pull up from deep again. Not one of the 19,812 fans in attendance thought the shot would miss. It didn’t.
Villanova 50, Creighton 45.
That’s all the Wildcats would need to seal their sixth Big East Championship.
Shortly after 8 p.m. on Thursday night, the Wildcats looked dead in the water. St. John’s had opened the second half of the quarterfinal matchup with a 12-4 run, and Posh Alexander’s 3-pointer had the 2 seed down by 17 points with a little under 16 minutes to go in the game. Villanova seemed headed for an early exit from Madison Square Garden for the second consecutive year.
Justin Moore hit a three. Then Gillespie. Then Caleb Daniels. The Wildcats rallied with an 18-2 run as their once-quiet shooters came to life. Once down and nearly out, Villanova had made it a game.
The run only brought Villanova within reach. Stef Smith put St. John’s back in front late with his layup-and-one.
It was the unheralded Brandon Slater who would send the Johnnies back to Queens. Slater drew a foul with two seconds left and calmly sank both free throws, putting Villanova ahead 66-65. That score would hold.
Friday night was much of the same, but without the dramatics of the comeback. UConn’s Tyrese Martin put the Huskies ahead early in the second half, but Slater provided the answer again to regain the Villanova lead. The lead would hold for the final 15:24, but only by the slimmest of margins.
Gillespie turned to his teammates, recording ten assists as the Wildcats continuously held off a UConn push. He only scored three points in the half, but the last was the final insurance free throw against a last-second Husky heave. The shot went wide, and the Cats were championship-bound.
Against the upstart Bluejays on Saturday night, it was defense the defined most of the night. Led by the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in Ryan Kalkbrenner, Creighton held Villanova to just 19 points in the opening frame. Gillespie was scoreless.
“We just couldn’t score. And we just had to grind it out and tough it out defensively,” said Jay Wright after the game. Villanova led 19-18 at the half with the Bluejays blanked from deep.
That changed 75 seconds into the second half.
Alex O’Connell cocked and fired his team’s 14th three-point attempt. It was the first one that went through the basket. A few minutes later, Kalkbrenner’s layup put Creighton ahead for the first time.
Many were unsure if this young Creighton team could hang with the Big East’s perpetual power. Villanova’s 11-2 run in response to Kalkbrenner’s basket would be enough to send most teams packing. The eight-point deficit didn’t faze this one. Two baskets each from Kalkbrenner and Kaluma and an Alexander three later, and the score was knotted at 36.
Gillespie hit a three to put Villanova back in front heading into the under-eight timeout. The Bluejays came blazing out of it, scoring seven straight with an eye-popping alley-oop to Kalkbrenner in transition getting the Creighton fans on their feet. The four-point lead was the largest they had all game.
It took Villanova only 80 seconds to get the lead back. Daniels hit a three to put the Cats up 43-44 with 4:08 to play. Kalkbrenner quickly responded with a layup to make the score 45-44.
That set up the final sequence. It was Collin Gillespie time.
It seemed unlikely that Villanova would make the Big East Championship. Twelve months earlier, it was even less likely that Gillespie would still be around.
Villanova’s star tore his MCL late in the 2021 season. Gillespie was forced to watch the rest of the season from home, looking on while Villanova lost to Georgetown in the opening round of the Big East Tournament and later to eventual champion Baylor in the NCAA tournament.
He decided to come back for one more season, taking advantage of the extra year offered by the NCAA. The rehab process to get him back on the court, however, was not a sure thing.
“He didn’t really get to start playing until late August. So it took him time to get it going.” The Preseason Player of the Year limped into the season. “I could tell early in the season he wasn’t 100 percent yet.”
Gillespie pushed through. By Big East play, he had started to put things together. An ankle injury didn’t deter him. His career night in Providence over the eventual regular season-champions was capped by a dagger three late, and the shot all but sealed his Player of the Year honors.
Those honors were affirmed with a trophy on Wednesday. By Saturday night, Gillespie’s play earned a trophy for his whole team.
With Villanova up by two points against Creighton and less than a minute to go, Gillespie was selfless. He was also exhausted.
“Like Coach said, I was tired on the one last possession. We gave it to Justin (Moore), and we were going to let Justin make a play.”
Moore did just that. His layup with 15 seconds to play put the finishing touches on Villanova’s championship. Gillespie added two more free throws, and the Wildcats led 54-48 as the final buzzer rang.
The Wildcats were Big East champs once again. The confetti falling on Jay Wright and his team was a familiar sight.
“It’s a thrill in your lifetime to be part of this,” said Wright after the game.
Gillespie scored 17 points in the win with 5 assists. Moore scored 16 points.
Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner led all scorers with 19 points, and Alex O’Connell scored 10. Arthur Kaluma recorded 9 points and 10 rebounds.