By John Fanta
VILLANOVA, Pa. – Jay Wright’s stressed it all season long. The Wildcats can’t solely rely on Phil Booth (18.4 PPG) and Eric Paschall (17.3) to carry the entire load. This Villanova team isn’t the one of last year, and how could it be? The Wildcats possessed four NBA Draft selections en route to a second national title in three years. That said, the retooling seemed like it may have been complete 10 games into the Big East season, when Villanova was perfect in league play. Entering Wednesday night, an exact opposite mindset was in place. Having lost three straight, the Wildcats had averaged just 64.0 points per game on the skid. They needed to find a way out of the rut, but the potential ways to get going offensively seemed limited, and the 10th-ranked Marquette Golden Eagles were entering The Finneran Pavilion.
The results? Just as, if not more surprising than a Villanova three-game losing streak. After going scoreless in each of the team’s three losses entering Wednesday, Jermaine Samuels put up the best performance of his career with 29 points and nine rebounds in a 67-61 Cats win over the top team in the league standings. Samuels had scored just once in double-figures in Big East play – 15 points at Creighton on Jan. 13 – and yet in the team’s biggest game of the year, he emerged. Just as the question about who could complement Booth and Paschall had many hitting a wall before the game, the possible answers seemed out of bounds. It was the magic of college basketball and the winning that’s bred at Villanova all rolled into one. Samuels’ night was a reality, and it all started with a message from his head coach.
“He said to me, ‘Make plays and be aggressive,’” said Samuels of Wright’s words to the sophomore before the game. “Luckily, I had a night like this. I was having fun, I won’t lie.”
The fun Samuels was having creates fun in the Big East race, as Marquette owns a ½ game lead on Villanova at 12-3 in the league standings with the Wildcats at 12-4.
“We weren’t surprised about it,” said Booth of Samuels’ 29-point breakout. “We know Jermaine’s been capable of this, but it’s just been a matter of time. He was so special tonight.”
A special performance was needed, with Paschall and Booth combining to shoot just 5-for-27 from the field on their Senior Night. Yet, it didn’t faze the reigning national champions, who have essentially seen as much as any duo in college basketball. Trailing 60-55 with 5:17 on the clock, the Cats held Marquette without a field goal make from that point on and rolled out a 12-1 run to close the contest.
“We continued to fight for each other,” said Samuels. “We wanted to prove it to each other, and that was the key to the game. It was just to focus on each other. To prove it to each other tonight, that’s the best thing of it all.”
Villanova proved that despite a year of twists and turns, there’s still a winning pedigree in place. Despite Marquette having lost just once since Jan. 1 before Wednesday, the Wildcats proved they could win without their stars being on their A-game. And while it wasn’t their best, this was a telling win for Villanova, one that’s a reminder of why you don’t want to run into the Wildcats with your season on the line in March.
As for what’s ahead in the Big East regular season title race, Marquette’s season is down to three games while Villanova has just two left. The Golden Eagles will host Creighton Saturday, visit Seton Hall Wednesday and conclude with Georgetown coming to Milwaukee on March 9. Meanwhile, the Wildcats host Butler Saturday at Wells Fargo Center before a bye leads them into Newark at The Hall on March 9 as well. If both teams win out, the Golden Eagles would take the title outright, but with one less game to play and a bye factored in as well, Villanova is very much alive. Plus, with a head-to-head win over third-place St. John’s, the Cats would own that tiebreaker. There’s much to be decided, but it makes for a fun final week and change in the league season.
Follow @NCAAHoopsDigest and @John_Fanta on Twitter for updates as March dawns upon us.