Samuels, Slater Lead Villanova to 63-60 Semifinal Win Over UConn


Courtesy of Maggie Mengel/Villanovan Photography

Graduate forward Jermaine Samuels led the Wildcats with a game-high 21 points.

Colin Beazley, Co-Editor-in-Chief

NEW YORK 一 After a comfortable 62-52 win on Thursday night over Seton Hall, Madison Square Garden was filled with one song.


As Thursday night turned into Friday morning and fans dispersed into the New York night, the chant lingered in the air, a song that had been gone from the city since 2013.


After Creighton finished wiping the floor with top-seeded Providence in a game with an atmosphere that never truly developed, it seemed that the entire state of Connecticut rose to its feet in unison in preparation for the team’s return to the Big East’s biggest night.


By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Garden was filled with a new song.


Graduate forward Jermaine Samuels scored 21 and had 12 rebounds, senior forward Brandon Slater had 15 points, and although UConn limited Villanova’s guard trio of graduate Collin Gillespie, junior Justin Moore and redshirt senior Caleb Daniels to just 17 points combined, Villanova emerged with a 63-60 win to advance to the Big East Tournament final.

“If you would have said to me just going into the game that we would hold Gillespie to five on only five shot attempts, Moore to six points of 3-of-9 shooting, and Daniels 2-for-10 — so, five, six and six — I would have said, ‘how many did we win by?’” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “The plan was to make their others beat us… They stepped up tonight, in Slater and Samuels, and won that game.”

The semifinal lived up to the billing, fueled by a rabid atmosphere. After leaving the Big East for the American Athletic Conference in 2013 and only returning in 2020, when the Big East Tournament was closed to fans, UConn supporters came out in full force. Villanova’s fans traveled as well, creating a special environment for the clash between two of the Big East’s best.

“If you grew up in the Northeast, it’s a basketball junkie’s dream,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “There’s no atmosphere like this anywhere in the world for basketball. 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.”

The Wildcats opened the game with a barrage of three pointers, scoring their first 12 points with shots from behind the arc. Eight of Villanova’s 11 made field goals were from three in the first half, while UConn kept up with 16 points in the paint to just four from Villanova.

With 17 minutes remaining, Slater scored five straight points to give the Wildcats a 42-38 lead, a lead Villanova would maintain the rest of the way.

The Huskies mounted their best threat to the Wildcat lead with 4:34 remaining, using a full court press to force a turnover and having a chance on the break. UConn’s Tyrese Martin received a pass in the paint and went up for a slam, but Slater met him at the rim, blocking the attempt and stemming the UConn comeback attempt.

“Honestly, it was just a play,” Slater said. “I saw him go up, and I felt like I could contest it. When I got up, it just so happened that I got lucky and I got the block.”

Andre Jackson hit an open three with 7.8 seconds remaining to bring the Huskies within two, trailing 62-60, but Villanova broke the full court press and burned almost five seconds before Tyler Polley was finally able to foul Gillespie. Gillespie, one of the nation’s best free throw shooters, made the first but missed the second, giving UConn a chance to force overtime at the buzzer. 

However, a halfcourt heave from UConn hit the backboard and bounced away, giving the Wildcats the win and a Saturday night matchup with fourth-seeded Creighton and a chance to play for a Big East Tournament title.

The Villanova offense often lives and dies with Gillespie, but the graduate guard found a way to make an impact even with just five points. Gillespie had 10 assists in the game, a season high and his first game with double digit assists since Jan. 30, 2021.

Wright used just seven players in the game, but key minutes were handed to freshman guard Jordan Longino. Longino, who played 11 minutes in the game, was two for three from the field, scoring five points.

“Jordan has been outstanding,” Wright said. “He’s a gutsy kid for a freshman. We need his depth, we really do.”

With the win, the Wildcats advanced to the Big East Championship game, the sixth time in the past seven tournaments Villanova has advanced to the title game. With a win, Villanova would move into sole possession of third place all-time in tournament championships with six, only trailing Georgetown’s eight and UConn’s seven. 

When the lights at Madison Square Garden finally turned off and the final fan had left the stands, only one thing remained in the World’s Most Famous Arena.