NEW YORK– This is what Collin Gillespie signed up for.
In 2020, his season, as well as everybody else’s seasons were cut short due to the COVID-19 Pandemic shutting down the entire world. The day the Big East Tournament was cancelled, Villanova was scheduled to play that night.
In 2021, right before the Big East Tournament was about to begin, Gillespie tore his ACL, an injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season.
He was senior and was forced to make a decision: Does he want the lasting image of his College career to be him watching on the sidelines? Or finishing out his career on the court?
Gillespie chose the latter and exercised his option for another year, a rule that was implemented because of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
He missed the previous two Big East Tournaments, both out of his control.
And even if he did play in the tournament last year and never got injured, last year was different. It was weird, in an arena that provides enough electricity to power a third-world country, there was none last year.
No rowdy fans living and dying with every possession to be found.
Fast forward about a year, it was the total opposite.
Of course the inclusion of UConn helps, their fanbase is just a quick train ride away, just like Villanova’s. So when the two teams met in the semi-final game last night at 9:00, it was pandemonium.
It was everything that this tournament was missing the last two years, and man was it good to see it, and hear it back.
“That’s part of the reason why I came back,” Gillespie said. “Not being able to experience it the last two years. And it’s just so much fun to be out there with my teammates and my coaches. And we really just enjoy it, and enjoy the time together.”
Adding to the already built-up pandemonium was the game itself.
It was a back-and-forth affair, with 15 lead changes, multiple ties, but Villanova pulled it out in the end by a final score of 63-60.
“I’m sure I’m biased, but I’m just going to be honest. Friday night, Madison Square Garden, semifinals, Billy Joel is playing. Villanova/Connecticut. If you grew up in the Northeast it’s a basketball junkie’s dream.” Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright said. “This rivals the NCAA Tournament. We talk about it as coaches in our league, what’s better, Sweet 16 or playing in the Garden on Friday night or winning a Big East championship.”
Villanova will have a chance to win the Big East Championship on Saturday night against Creighton, thanks in large part to Jermaine Samuels and Brandon Slater.
Samuels, who is dealing with back spasms scored a game-high 21 points and hauled in 12 rebounds and made big shot after big shot.
“We got a chiropractor up here from Philly came up, got here like 4 o’clock.” Wright said. “We have a masseuse with us. He couldn’t go through walk-through, couldn’t stand long enough to go through walk-through.”
“I’m amazed at him. But once he gets going — he’s done this in his career with injuries.” Wright said. “He played with a broken finger last year. Had surgery. Missed the whole summer, had surgery. But he played with a broken finger. But he’s a tough kid and a great competitor.”
Brandon Slater chipped in with 15 points including an insane block on Tyrese Martin.
“I saw him go up, and I felt like I could contest it.” Slater said. “When I got up, it just so happened that I got lucky and I got the block.”
The win advances Villanova to yet another Big East Tournament championship game, their sixth in the last Sven tournaments where they will take on Creighton, who is in their first Big East Tournament championship game since 2017 where they coincidentally took on Villanova and lost.
For everyone involved, the atmosphere inside of Madison Square Garden on Friday night was a welcome sight. Personally? I think UConn being back in the Big East enhances all of it.
Expect the same Saturday night.
“There’s no atmosphere like this anywhere in the world for basketball.” Wright said. “The juice in there, man, you can feel it when you come out there. And the electricity, it’s incredible. We’re so blessed to be a part of it. And I’ll never forget the games that you play in here. This is an awesome atmosphere.”