NEW YORK – With his team trailing with less than three minutes remaining in the game and with the championship of the Big East Tournament on the line Villanova coach Jay Wright did what any coach would do. He put the ball in the hands of his star player.
And Collin Gillespie answered the call in a big way.
The six-foot, two-inch guard, who was held scoreless in the first half, ended the game with 17 points, with eight of those coming in the final three minutes of play as Villanova rallied to defeat Creighton 54-48 to win the Big East championship on March 12 at Madison Square Garden.
It was the sixth conference tournament title for Villanova. The six championships rank third in conference history behind Georgetown (8) and Connecticut (7). Wright, who spent seven seasons as coach at Hofstra (1994-2001) has coached the Wildcats to five of those titles along with two national championships (2016, 2018).
Saturday’s win also gives the Wildcats the league’s automatic bid into the national tournament which begins next week.
Creighton, meanwhile, came up short in its bid for the first conference title in four appearances in the title game since joining the league in time for the 2013-14 season. The Bluejays will take a 22-11 season record into next week’s national tournament.
Creighton, which used two scoring spurts earlier in the second half, had taken a 45-44 lead when Ryan Kalkbrenner tipped in a missed shot by teammate Ryan Hawkins with 3:49 remaining in the game.
That was when Gillespie put his team and the hopes of a championship squarely on his shoulders.
With Kalkbrenner out front guarding Gillespie, the Wildcat standout deftly drained a 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Kalkbrenner, who stands 11 inches taller than Gillespie. The basket put the Wildcats in front 47-45 with 2:43 left in the game.
Gillespie added another 3-pointer for good measure less than a minute later to extend the lead to 50-45 with 2:03 left on the clock.
Kalkbrenner connected on the first of two free throws a short time later and teammate Trey Alexander canned a pair of free throws with 37.9 seconds left and giving the Bluejays a glimmer of hope of a comeback win.
Gillespie dashed those hopes with a pair of free throws with 6.5 seconds left virtually ending Creighton’s title hopes.
Neither team played particularly well in the opening stanza as Villanova managed a mere 19-18 lead after the first 20 of play. The 37 combined points marked the lowest-scoring half in Big East championship game history.
Villanova, which led just 19-18 at halftime, opened the second half by extending the advantage to 21-18 and Alex O’Connell tied the game for the Bluejays on a 3-pointer from the left corner with 18:43 left in the game. Kalkbrenner later gave Creighton its first lead of the game at 23-21 before Villanova fashioned the first of its two scoring binges.
A 12-4 run gave the Wildcats their biggest lead of the night at 33-25 with just over 12 minutes to go and putting a conference championship in view.
Creighton had other ideas.
The Bluejays put together an 11-3 run of the own to tie the game on a 3-pointer from Alexander at the 8:06 mark. Coming out of the media timeout Gillespie put the Wildcats back in front 39-36 with a 3-pointer of his own.
Kalbrenner’s stuff with 5:27 to go returned the lead to the Bluejays.
Just over 30 seconds later Gillespie was fouled by Alexander that put the Wildcats in the bonus the rest of the way and Gillespie, one of the top free throw shooters in the nation this season, made the most of the opportunity to pull his team to within 43-41 and setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
Villanova opened the contest by scoring the first seven points of the game while Creighton struggled from the floor by connecting on just two of 10 shots in the opening eight minutes of play. The Wildcats led just 10-5 at the second media timeout of the half.
Creighton found a rhythm for a short time as Arthur Kaluma, Hawkins and Alexander combined for a 6-0 run that pulled the Bluejays to within 12-11 with 8:10 left in the half.
The Wildcats could only muster 32 percent shooting from the floor in the half while the Bluejays connected on just 28 percent of their shots, including being unsuccessful on all 13 of their attempts from 3-point range. Villanova was not much better from long range as the Wildcats made just two of 13 long-range attempts in the half.
The victorious Wildcats placed two players in double figures with Gillespie leading the way with his 17 points on five of 14 shooting from the floor and his three treys and connecting on all four of his free throw attempts. Teammate Justin Moore chipped in with 16 points.
Creighton also had just two players reach double figures in scoring with Kalkbrenner leading all scorers in the game with his 19 points and O’Connell adding 10 points. Kaluma, one of the top freshmen in the league this season, narrowly missed a double-double by scoring nine points to go along with his game-high 12 rebounds for the Bluejays.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.