Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Jay Wright has coached Collin Gillespie in 125 games, for more than 3,400 minutes on the court. The Villanova boss has been around his star pupil for more than four years, for countless drills and practices, spent thousands of hours watching the Archbishop Wood product hone his craft on the hardwood.
And yet, the Hall of Fame head coach admitted, there are still times where he gets a reminder of just how good Gillespie has become.
“It’s true,” Wright said. “Sometimes you do say, you take him for granted. Because [...] he’s a great rebounder as a guard, he sets up everybody, there’s a lot of times where he has shots but he gets other people the ball, he recognizes situations. So I count on him for all that.
Collin Gillespie (above) had his best scoring game in two years at the Palestra on Wednesday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“And there’s nights where you see him going off, you’re like, maybe we should be doing this more often.”
It was such a night for Gillespie on Wednesday against Penn in his final collegiate game at the Palestra, a building where he’s put together some highlight-reel performances. The Wildcats’ leader was nearly unstoppable no matter what the Quakers threw at him, in complete control in a way few lead guards around the country can be for a full 40 minutes.
Gillespie’s numbers in the 71-56 win are strong on their face: 9-of-15 from the floor, 4-of-8 from the 3-point arc and 4-of-4 from the foul line for 26 points, more than he’s scored in any game since Feb. 16, 2020. But how he got them — bobbing and weaving through a Penn defense determined to stop him from doing exactly that, posting up and scoring, knocking down jumpers with a hand in his face — was continually impressive.
All part of the game plan, Wright said, knowing that Penn would do what it could to prevent Villanova from “ball movement”-ing them to death like the Wildcats have done to so many teams. Gillespie, who entered the day averaging 15.5 ppg and 4.2 apg, had to do more on his own, which explains his first zero-assist day since March 23, 2019.
“We knew they like to take drive-and-space opportunities away for kickout 3s,” Gillespie said, “so first we just had to play off our jump-shots, and then use our concepts and our habits to go to score first, and if they took it away, to make the right play.”
Gillespie showed that high-scoring ability in high school, where he surpassed the 30-point mark on numerous occasions — and even hit the 40-point plateau at least once or twice — while leading Wood to the PIAA Class 5A state championship in 2017. But at Villanova he’s tended to average around 14-15 ppg in Wright’s multi-faceted attack; he’s put in 14.8 ppg and 4.5 apg over 57 games dating back to the start of the 2019-20 season, his third on the Main Line.
Collin Gillespie (above, right) drives past Penn's Clark Slajchert on the way to the hoop. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“For us to be a good team, it’s easy to stop a team when you just have one guy that you’ve got to stop and the other guys aren’t ready to score,” Wright said. “He does a great job of making the team good by scoring when he needs to score, and keeping everybody involved, getting everybody else easy shots.”
It’s a credit to Gillespie’s impact that he’s received the honors he has — First Team All-Big East, preseason All-American, and so many others — without putting up 20 points on a regular basis, or without perhaps the highlight-reel plays that other such guards regularly flash.
In his fifth year in the Villanova program, with a national championship under his belt as a freshman, he’s got more experience than most players in college hoops. It just tends to show in ways that aren’t in the scoring column.
“He echoes calls offensively, defensively, he’s telling us all the time where we should be, what spot we should be in, if somebody’s not in the right spot, he’s telling us,” said redshirt junior wing Brandon Slater, who supplemented Gillespie with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the win. “He’s always trying to echo something that one of the coaches said to us or if there was a scheme or a value we didn’t talk about in the huddle, he’s always trying to remind us.
“Having a guy like Collin is really important, it’s really special.”
“I think that’s part of what makes him really good,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “I think he sensed that fairly early [tonight], that (he’s) probably going to have to score different ways.
“He has that mental toughness that I think is something that we’re trying to get, and tonight, he’s been such a facilitator this year, I thought he really stepped up and played terrific.”
Gillespie is hitting 44% of his 3-pointers (25-of-57) through seven games. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The win over Penn (3-7, 0-1 Big 5) was the second victory in a row for Villanova (5-2, 2-0), who’s playing a stretch of three straight Big 5 games in a span of six days. The Wildcats dispatched La Salle 72-46 on Sunday, and will host Saint Joseph’s on Saturday at noon. Penn also continues with Big 5 play on Saturday, going to Temple (4-3, 1-0) on Saturday (4 PM).
Gillespie and Slater carried an otherwise off night for the Wildcats; the rest of Villanova’s roster was just 10-of-34 (29.4%) from the floor and 2-of-14 from the 3-point arc. The Wildcats only had seven assists against nine turnovers, and allowed Penn to make 13 3-pointers.
It was a 41-26 advantage on the glass and 32-10 advantage on points in the paint — largely coming from Gillespie and Slater — that tilted the game in the visitors’ favor.
“We didn’t get much going in the post, they take away 3s, they’re really good at that,“ Wright said, “so your drive game has to be effective, and that’s what Slate and Collin did a great job of.”
The Quakers were led by a 21-point effort from sophomore guard Jordan Dingle (7-19 FG, 5-14 3PT), 12 from Max Martz; they each hit several big triples in the second half as Penn cut a double-digit deficit down to nine points on several occasions.
But the hosts couldn’t ever get closer, with Villanova finding a response every time Penn threatened to make a real run at it.
“I was actually very pleased with long stretches of how we competed, but it takes every ounce of us to compete against that kind of physicality and toughness,” Donahue said. “We missed two front ends and two foul shots, six points in a stretch where we cut the lead to (nine), and you just can’t do that against Villanova.”
Penn playing small
The Quakers are dealing with some injuries in the post. Junior forward Max Lorca-Lloyd and freshman Nick Spinoso, who’ve played the majority of the minutes at the ‘5’ position, were both in boots on their right legs/feet and in dress clothes at the end of the Quaker bench.
Donahue didn’t sound optimistic about their returning anytime soon.
“I think Max Lorca-Lloyd has got a longer stretch [on the sidelines],” he said, “and I don’t think Nick’s going to be back this semester, either.”
With the pair out, Donahue started 6-7 junior forward Michael Moshkovitz up front alongside the 6-5 Martz, with 6-9 Michael Wang playing 16 minutes off the bench.