NEW YORK — Playing shorthanded on Tuesday night, Villanova came to Madison Square Garden with an all-hands-on-deck attitude in hoping to keep St. John’s’ relentless full-court press at bay. For good measure, Connor Gillespie ended up doing a little bit of everything to secure a Wildcats win.
Gillespie, at most times the second-shortest player on the court on Tuesday, collected a career-high 13 rebounds to go along with 17 points and six assists as Villanova kept pace atop the Big East standings with a 79-59 victory over the Red Storm at Madison Square Garden.
Saddiq Bey led all Wildcat scorers with 23 points — including nailing five three-pointers — and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl posted his third double-double in his last six outings with 13 points and 14 rebounds as every starter for Villanova scored at least 11 points.
The Wildcats were without junior forward Jermaine Samuels, one of the five Wildcats who average double figures in points, as he sat out with a foot injury he suffered last weekend against Providence. The worry that arose from losing depth going into a game where endurance was going to be a factor soon assuaged as the Wildcats, led by their hard-nosed floor leader in Gillespie, turned an early seven-point deficit into a 13-point halftime lead in winning their seventh straight.
“Collin’s a beast,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “We hadn’t been rebounding well and he goes and rebounds his head off. That’s impressive. Really impressive.”
Another impressive number for Gillespie is one: the number of turnovers he committed against St. John’s pressure.
“Early, we’re not used to this speed,” Wright said about going up against the Red Storm’s pressure defense. “As you play, you get used to it. You just can’t simulate that in practice. Their quickness and speed is really tough. That’s why I thought, in the second half, we were better and got a feel for how much you can put the ball on the floor.”
“I thought Collin early was playing with the ball a little bit, which he can do. In the second half, he did it all.”
St. John’s had a chance to make the finish much more interesting early in the second half Nick Rutherford forced a steal in the backcourt with the Red Storm down 46-38. Rutherford, however, missed an easy layup and, on the subsequent possession, Gillespie with a three-pointer to open up a double-digit lead once more.
St. John’s was able to cut the Villanova lead back to single digits on its next possession, but then trailed by at least 10 for the rest of the contest.
“When we steal it, we miss a layup as opposed to making the right decision,” said St. John’s head coach Mike Anderson. “I can’t knock the guys’ effort. I think that was there. Sometimes, the execution is not there defensively and, of course, offensively, and I think we saw that tonight.”
Rasheem Dunn led all scorers with 24 points for the Red Storm, who have now lost five of six.