By Dan Gardella
New York – While Providence’s season ended up needing to play a first round game at the Big East Tournament, the Friars entered New York with an opportunity to be the sleeper team of the tournament.
But Villanova stopped them in their tracks. The trio of Collin Gillespie, Eric Paschall, and Phil Booth combined for 52 points including some key buckets down the stretch to beat Providence 73-62 to advance to the Big East Tournament semifinals.
Phil Booth got the Wildcats on the board first with a slam two minutes in to give Villanova the early lead. The Friars, who were on the same court just 17 hours ago ran off nine straight points, four of which came from Nate Watson inside to show to Villanova that they were up to the test.
Villanova would respond to the initial punch from Providence with a 13-0 run to put the Wildcats back in front. It was apparent that it was going to be a dogfight kind of game.
While the Providence scouting report zeroed in on Paschall and Booth, Collin Gillespie, who had his ups and downs throughout the season knocked down three three-pointers in the first half to take the scoring load off of the two senior leaders.
“It’s been awesome,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright about the guard. “He’s another guy who’s a sophomore and kind of treating him like a senior. He’s got to be a leader, and he’s got a lot on his shoulders too.”
While Providence hung tough with the Wildcats in the first half, Villanova would manage to score the last six points of the first half to take a 31-24 lead into the halftime break.
Villanova would keep the lead at two possessions for the first nine minutes of the second half, leaving Providence with little time to make a comeback.
But any Ed Cooley led team is not going to go away easily. Providence would continue to hang with the Wildcats and eventually, would come back, highlighted by Alpha Diallo’s basket from inside plus the foul to tie things at 44.
The Wildcats countered with Gillespie, who would continue to have the hot hand from deep and knock down a three to give the Wildcats a 47-44 lead. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree would knock down a pair of free throws as Villanova would answer Providence’s run with a quick 5-0 run to re-take the lead.
Then the Wildcats would become the Villanova of old.
The quick 5-0 run previously mentioned would be the beginning of a 17-5 run to open the lead to 12 with just four minutes to play. Providence would get the lead to as little as five but ultimately, mistakes and poor execution would prevent the Friars from overcoming the hole they dug.
“We just made too many mistakes,” said Providence head coach Ed Cooley. “Especially late, and they capitalized on them.”
The Wildcats, who have won 12 of their last 13 games at the Big East Tournament, have now seen, and beaten Providence in four of the last five Big East Tournaments.
“They are just really well coached,” said Wright. “We really know what each other are doing, and we’ve had so many tough games with each other. I think the players are very comfortable in terms of styles of play.”
Paschall led the Wildcats with his third double-double of the season, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Most of Paschall’s points, coming from inside or at the charity stripe.
“Coach (Wright) gave me the confidence to be aggressive, shoot threes, and also just take what the defense gives me.
The Friars, who are a long shot away from the NCAA Tournament will evaluate their options in terms of postseason play. Cooley wants to play with this particular team again.
“We earned exactly what we got this year,” said Cooley. “If we get into the NIT, I’ll be excited about it because I still want to play with this young group. IF we don’t, we’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror.”
PHOTO: Colin Gillespie/USATodaysports.com