Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney)
Jay Wright sat alone at the podium for a minute or two, gathering himself while looking at the scoresheet directly in front of him while Eric Dixon and Brandon Slater joined him on the Wells Fargo Center interview room dais.
There was a mix of pride, exhaustion and concern etched across the Hall of Famer's face as he looked at the scoresheet from Villanova’s 85-74 win over Connecticut Saturday before 19,796 in South Philly.
“It’s the Big East, man,” Wright said. “You know that every team is going to come at you and they did. We just weathered the storm and I’m proud of the way our guys did that.”
Eric Dixon (above, in Dec.) had a double-double and played strong defense in Saturday's win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
These Big East storms, however, can leave some lasting damage. They can scare you and leave you feeling that even a win in battle could end up having a devastating impact in the broader picture. And Villanova’s bigger picture - winning the Big East, perhaps getting to play at Wells Fargo for the East Region in March’s NCAA Tournament and another crack at a Final Four - can still be viewed as a bit murky.
Make no mistake: There were a lot of things that went right for No. 12 Villanova on Saturday afternoon against a Top 20 team in the Huskies. None more so than the breakout day for Dixon, the redshirt sophomore from Abington who was dominant and gave a big man performance that Villanova desperately needed.
And yet, the overwhelming headline in this one will be concern for the Wildcats, who saw Collin Gillespie go down with an right ankle injury with under seven minutes to play. Gillespie was scheduled to undergo an x-ray on Saturday night with his immediate status (namely for Tuesday night’s game at Madison Square Garden against St. John’s) very much in question.
Dixon had his best overall game of his career, finishing with a career-high 24 points and 12 rebounds while dominating the Huskies' inside tandem of Isaiah Whaley and Adama Sanogo into foul trouble that set the tone of the afternoon.
Combined, Whaley and Sanogo had 20 points, seven boards and eight fouls - enough to get Connecticut coach Dan Hurley into a frustration technical midway through the second half.
Dixon’s year has been incredible because of the maturity he has shown in basically rebuilding his game into the style that the Wildcats coaches would like him to play - far more developed than the freeform AAU and Abington standout that arrived on the Main Line.
“Last year, there were a lot of days in practice when Jeremiah Robinson-Earl couldn’t deal with (Dixon),” Wright said. “But he was in that learning process. We saw it continuing and we see it in practice this year. And he has so much more in him.”
“I’ve seen guys come through (the program) before and do it,” Dixon said. “They grinded it out and you see them work at it. It didn’t happen overnight for them. I don’t take anything for granted. You just come out tomorrow and try to do it again.”
Villanova may need it if Gillespie and Justin Moore – the Wildcats’ two leading scorers and the only two averaging double figures - are both going to be out for a longer period. Moore was a game-time decision on Saturday, but sat on the bench in street clothes after trying to work through his ankle injury during pre-game warmups.
“He was hoping to play (Saturday), but the trainers said he couldn’t go,” Wright said after the game. Wright did indicate there is a chance that Moore could be back on Tuesday.
Gillespie left after landing on the foot of UConn guard Jordan Hawkins. Television replays showed a clean roll over. After slowly getting up, Gillespie hobbled up the ramp to the Villanova locker room from in front of the UConn bench, and returned a few minutes later to sit next to Wright. It was clear, however, that his afternoon was over.
“When he came back to the bench, I asked, ‘Can you play?’,” Wright said. “He said no. That’s all I know.”
Gillespie – who missed the end of his 2020-21 campaign with a torn MCL in his left knee - was scheduled to have an x-ray on Saturday night to determine the extent of the injury. Wright did say that Neshaminy product Chris Arcidiacono would take the point guard spot on Tuesday night at St. John’s should the injury keep Gillespie out. Arcidiacono ran the point after the Gillespie injury and appeared to have some difficulty against UConn’s full court press.
“Definitely,” Wright said when asked about the confidence he has in Arcidiacono in that spot. “I was proud as hell of him and these guys handling the ball, spreading the ball out and making plays.”
On Saturday, the Wildcats made enough plays to win a huge conference contest against an old rival. And yet, they must batten down the hatches and hope that this injury storm doesn’t destroy everything they’ve worked hard to this point to establish.