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Moore saves 'Nova's season as Wildcats squeak past DePaul in Big East Tournament

03/14/2024, 1:00am EDT
By Finn Courtney

Finn Courtney (@finncourtney_)

NEW YORK CITY — “Thank god for Justin Moore.”

Words to end Kyle Neptune’s opening statement could not have been more true in what was an unexpectedly thriller of a Big East Conference Tournament first round win against the hapless DePaul Blue Demons (3-29), owners of a 20-game losing streak. 

A game that Villanova was heavily favored in turned into a shocker that looked like DePaul’s to win up two until the graduate senior Moore hit a worthy-of-March dagger three to send Villanova (18-14) onwards with eight seconds remaining, 58-57. The sixth-seed Wildcats will face third-seed Marquette on Thursday at 9:30 p.m.

“I was just reading the situation and they gave me too much space so I’m going to let it fly,” Moore said. “Just wanting to win. I’m a big-time player so I was trying to make big-time plays to end the game.”

Justin Moore (above) hit a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left as Villanova survived. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

A product of Maryland’s DeMatha Catholic, Moore blossomed into the second-leading scorer on Villanova’s 2021-22 Final Four-bound team but that same fateful tournament forever changed his career. A torn Achilles befell Moore, an injury that cost the Wildcats mightily in the Final Four and cost the guard over half of his senior campaign, with recent knee issues hampering his play this season as well.

However, Moore wasn’t going to let his college career end on such a sour note. Comeback at least somewhat complete, Moore finished with 10 points (4-7, 2-4 3PA), six rebounds and four assists. Post-game, he gave praise to the tough matchup DePaul gave the Wildcats but doubly praised his teammates for maintaining that famous Villanova ‘attitude’ - the word plastered above the walk-out tunnel and if ever a game were more indicative of it, Wednesday was the night.

“I’m proud of our guys,” Moore said. “Like Coach [Neptune] said, being resilient. That was a tough game and we never gave in, no matter what was going on and I’m proud to be able to come out with the win.”

While surely a lot was on the mind of Neptune during the game, especially when DePaul jumped to an eight-point lead midway through the second half, one thought consumed his mind as Moore’s shot found nylon. 

“Sprint back, sprint back, sprint back, get a stop,” Neptune said. “We knew it was going to be a grind. Again, this is towards the end of the season. Everyone is fighting for their lives. So we knew that they were going to come out with a great game plan, we knew they were going to play hard [and] we wanted to give it a full 40 minutes. I thought we did that defensively, and thank God we did.”

Beyond Moore’s heroics, to put it mildly, it was an ugly night for Villanova as they were unable to overtake a team that hasn’t won since the ball dropped to 2024 until the final seconds. Only five Wildcats scored and one of them (Jordan Longino - nine points, 3-5 3PA) suffered an injury early in the second half. But, despite the struggles, Villanova did what it’s done all year — play through Eric Dixon and to a winning result Wednesday night.

Dixon helped his team survive with 21 points (8-20, 3-12 3PA, 2-3 FT), nine rebounds and three assists.

“I score on nights when that’s what defense give me, we have a lot of talented guys that can go out and score every single night,” Dixon said. “So, whenever I get the ball and they give me the ball to make the play, I just try to make the best one for them because I know they can all get shots off [as well].”

Villanova sophomore guard Mark Armstrong has statistically improved in all areas compared to his freshman year. Against DePaul, he poured in a solid performance, despite four turnovers, finishing with 11 points (4-10, 2-6 3PA) and four assists.

“Stay the course, we gotta come together even more and they were a great team, so we gotta come back and compete,” Armstrong said. “[I’m] just learning and growing every day and trusting my coaches, trusting my teammates.”

DePaul 6-foot guard Jalen Terry had an outstanding game on the world’s most famous stage in the game’s best tournament, doing everything to try and will the Blue Devils onward with a new career-high in rebounds (15) and 18 points (6-12, 4-9 3PA).

Suffice to say, DePaul didn’t look like a team that hasn’t won in conference play at all, a feeling Terry echoed post-game.

“I just feel like we were (more) connected today than any other day,” Terry said. “We trusted each other on defense, on offense [and] we preached 20 more minutes, we really can do this, we gotta believe at halftime.”

For former longtime St. Joe’s assistant and current interim coach Matt Brady, disappointment was evident after the heartbreaking loss but he couldn’t help but enjoy the positives of what was almost the most shocking upset of the year in the Big East.

“I thought tonight our team played with discipline and poise [and] we showed a fighting spirit.” Brady said. “We haven’t been the most disciplined or the grittiest team. But I thought our guys fought with everything they had, and you saw a really good performance.”

Regardless of their play, Villanova is alive, at least for another night before a big-time matchup with 10th-ranked Marquette, sans Tyler Kolek who is still unavailable with an oblique injury. Dixon’s not focusing on the matchup, rather expressing gratitude for getting to play any more games with his teammates.

“That’s what makes this group special, we never quit, we never give in and we stay together the entire time.” Dixon said. “And sometimes, you come out on top like this and sometimes you don’t but I just think no matter what, we stay together. This time of year, it’s always great to have games, so whoever it’s gonna be, we’re gonna be excited.”

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