NEW YORK– The phrase “Cats have nine lives” is obviously said in a jovial tone. But for the Villanova Wildcats basketball team, these particular “cats” legitimately might have nine lives.
After not holding a lead in the second half, let alone a lead since the 9:44 mark of the first half, the Wildcats came roaring back to knock off Xavier in overtime in the Big East Tournament semifinals by a final score of 71-67 at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
With nine seconds remaining and Villanova down 58-56, Villanova senior guard Phil Booth drove to the right side of the basket and threw up a shot off the glass. Unfortunately for him, it missed, but to his rescue was Villanova senior forward Eric Paschall, who tipped the ball in to tie it up at 58 apiece.
“The bench was yelling at me, ‘offensive glass’, and I saw Booth drive,” Paschall said. “I was on the weak side, most shots go off on the weak side, I was thinking aggressive rebounding, and the ball was there and I just tipped it in and that was it.”
While Paschall scored the game-tying bucket towards the end of regulation, Villanova would not have been in a situation for Paschall scoring the tying bucket without the heroics of Booth, who scored 28 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out five assists in 44 minutes.
For someone who has averaged 34.9 minutes per game this season, you would think that Booth would be exhausted at this point in the year.
Not the case.
“I feel fine,” Booth said. “I actually feel more fresh now, got through the tough stretch of the season and now every game you’re one and done, I feel fresh, I feel fine.”
The Big East Tournament definitely gives the team a second-wind of energy and Villanova head coach Jay Wright even said that the first and second round games of the NCAA Tournament is less energized than a Big East Tournament game at Madison Square Garden.
“When you come to the Big East Tournament, you get a second wind,” Wright told me. “It’s a new season, everyone comes here 0-0 but there’s a vibe in here when you come in here to play that brings everyone to another level, the problem is the opponent gets the same thing, it is really a special level of intensity.”
One of the big stories of this particular Villanova team is the lack of a consistent third scorer. In their quarterfinal game against Providence, it was sophomore guard Collin Gillespie who carried the scoring load. On Friday night, it was sophomore wing Jermaine Samuels, who dropped perhaps the quietest 17 points ever that was filled with momentum-shifting threes.
“Just being aggressive and knowing that my teammates have confidence in me to step in and make shots and go ahead and make plays,” Samuels said. “Just having that confidence, giving me the ability to go out there and do what I do.”
In conference play, Samuels would go some games shooting the ball maybe once or twice, and then the Marquette game happened, where he exploded for 29 points, going 10-19 from the field. In this game, Samuels went 5-14 from the field.
“I was more interested in making plays for my teammates,” Samuels said regarding his shot selection in conference play. “That was everything to me so once my opportunity came to go make plays, everybody and the staff said it’s time for you to start making plays and that’s when I came and stepped up.”
“He does not fear failure.” Wright said. “He stays aggressive. It’s a special characteristic he has, and it was big tonight.”
Up next for Villanova is a rematch of the 2016 Big East Tournament final against Seton Hall, who is coming off of a wild game against Marquette in the semis. This year, Villanova split the season series with the Pirates, winning the first matchup by a final score of 80-52 on January 20 at the Wells Fargo Center, and then dropping one at Seton Hall by a final score of 79-75.