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Brandon Slater enjoying breakout start for 'Nova men

11/17/2021, 1:00am EST
By Jerome Taylor

Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)

Through Brandon Slater’s first three seasons, the Villanova junior wing had only made 13 3-pointers. But three games into the 2021-2022 season, the Paul VI (Va.) product is showing he’s ready to be yet another long-distance threat for the No. 5 Wildcats.

Slater had his best career night from beyond the arc on Tuesday night as Villanova held off a hot-shooting Howard, 100-81, in a barnburner at the Finneran Pavilion. The 6-foot-7 wing was a perfect 4-of-4 from deep en route to a 23-point outing, setting a new career high in his 74th game played in Blue & White. 

Brandon Slater (above, in October) is off to a strong start to his fourth-year junior season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Through three games, he’s 9-for-12 from beyond the arc, 13-of-13 from the foul line and 14-of-21 overall, third on the team in scoring at 16.7 ppg.

“We work all spring, summer you’re working even in season...we practice everything,” Slater said. “We practice form shooting, practice free throws, three-pointers, jump-stop pivots, everything we practice we try and do that in the game.”

Slater’s progression at Villanova (2-1) has been noticeable, but it’s mostly been small steps, from averaging below half a point in 15 games as a freshman to 1.6 ppg as a sophomore, his role growing to 16.8 mpg last year, where he averaged 3.8 ppg and 2.2 rpg while going 10-of-24 (41.7%) from 3-point range. He set the bar high with a 17-point season-opener against Mt. St. Mary’s, going 5-of-7 from deep, before going off against Howard (3-1).

“It’s like a parent — it’s not like you have your favorite, but you see your certain children you know they’re doing the right things, but they haven’t got a break yet, and you want it to happen for them,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said about Slater’s progression. “Everybody in the program’s watched him be patient, be loyal, be intelligent, everybody has been rooting for him… Everybody knows how hard he’s worked to get to this point. 

“Nothing has been given to him. He’s earned everything. He’s never complained, and I think he inspires us. I think the guys get fired up when they see him play like that.”

Up to this point in his ‘Nova career, Slater had almost exclusively come off the bench except for two games last year. This year, he’s been a starter in every game and has scored double-digits in each outing, fulfilling the promise that Wright and the staff saw in him four years ago.

“Knowing that I had to wait my turn, my coaches and my teammates believing in me and giving me the confidence by just practicing with me, seeing me get better each day. It’s a total team effort. I can’t give myself all the credit,” Slater said.

 “We saw it all summer. Slate was one of the guys who was in there every day working his tail off just to get better, becoming a leader,” point guard Collin Gillespie said. “There’s nobody you are happier for because you’ve seen him put in the hard work, and he paid his dues, and now it’s really paying off for him. ”

The stoic fifth-year graduate student and preseason Big East Player of the Year, Gillespie provided his usual steady play at the point and finished just behind Slater with 21 points (6-13 FG, 5-12 3PT) in the Wildcats’ win.

In all, Villanova had four players put up double-digit scoring performances as junior Justin Moore (16 points) and graduate student Jermaine Samuels (11 points) joined in the Wildcats’ dazzling display of offense. The ‘Cats shot 57% from the field (30-53), 47% from 3-point range (14-30) and went 26-26 from the charity stripe after missing five free throws against UCLA in their previous game. 

As a team, Villanova’s making over 48% of its 3-pointers so far this season.

The Wildcats needed the offensive performance against the Bison, who kept the game competitive for most of the night on the back of a solid offensive performance of their own. 

Bison graduate student Kyle Foster went 4-5 from three in the first half and finished with 19 points. He got help from Columbia grad transfer Tai Bibbs (16 points), redshirt sophomore Steve Settle III (13 points) and freshman speedster Elijah Hawkins (16 points) as Howard went on to match Nova’s 57% field goal percentage and shot 50% from deep. 

Villanova’s lead was only eight at the midway point (52-44) despite shooting 10-of-19 from deep to that point. It took until past the midway point of the second half when the Wildcats finally put away their visitor for good, going up 21 with just over eight minutes to play.

“We couldn’t guard them, thank God we can score,” Wright said. “I’m just hoping they’re really good, and we just outscored them tonight.”

“I didn’t think we were that bad defensively. We were there on a lot of the 3’s, they just stuck them,” the recent Hall of Fame inductee added.

To counter Howard’s hot-shooting night, Nova scored 28 points off of turnovers and 16 second-chance points.

Villanova came into the season with legitimate frontcourt concerns, considering they don’t have a single player on the roster taller than 6-9. But 6-8 Eric Dixon was crucial to the Wildcats winning the battle on the boards (28-20), as he racked up seven rebounds (three offensive). 

In a game where both teams spent a majority of time inbounding the ball off an opponent’s made shot, Dixon’s presence was pivotal in one of the few games where the Wildcats will look like the bigger team. 

“This was a game we had to take advantage of [our advantage inside],” Wright said. “I thought we did a decent job on the boards, but when they make almost every shot, it’s hard to say how you’re rebounding because there aren’t that many rebounds.” 

Though the Bison have the 6-10 Settle III, he’s listed at 175 pounds and did most of his damage facing up or with his jumper. Dixon, however,  was effective in the post, knocking down hooks and overpowering a variety of Bison defenders to get to the rim. The redshirt-sophomore finished with nine points and added three assists to go with his rebounding efforts.

Next up on the 34th-toughest schedule in the country (according to ESPN), the Wildcats head to Mohegan Sun Arena for the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic, where Villanova will face No. 17 Tennesse and either No. 18 North Carolina or No. 6 Purdue. 

“Every game helps prepare us… we say, ‘Our next game is our biggest game,’” Slater said about the team’s challenging schedule. “We are focusing always on the next game. Every game that we play it’s an opportunity for us to get better.”

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