Wildcats Overcome Slow Start, Defeat Delaware, 80-60, in First Round of NCAA Tournament


Courtesy of Olivia Pasquale/Villanovan Photography

Justin Moore scored 17 points in the second half to lead the Wildcats.

Meghann Morhardt, Co-Sports Editor

PITTSBURGH 一 Once the first high seed goes down in the NCAA Tournament, everyone waits to see who the next will be. For the first ten minutes of Friday’s matchup, Delaware had the basketball world wondering if it would be Villanova. 

“The NCAA Tournament is such a great experience and so much going on around, watching all the games, but that can be a distraction too,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said of No. 15 Saint Peter’s’ overtime win against No.2 Kentucky. “We purposely didn’t talk about it so we could just say we’re concentrating on our game, we’re concentrating on us. But we all watched it.” 

While everyone watching sat in anticipation with the Wildcats trailing 15-8 at the under-12 media timeout, the Wildcats remained locked in, never doubting their plan of attack. 

“Stay the course,” graduate guard Collin Gillespie said of the mindset coming out of the break. “Keep doing what we’re supposed to do. No matter what was going on, we were getting up and down, just making sure we were continuing to play Villanova basketball.”

Delaware continued to fight, but once the Wildcats settled in, they were rolling. There was no stopping the No.6 overall seed from advancing to the second round as they cruised to an 80-60 victory. 

As a team who has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2014, the inexperience of the Blue Hens roster presented as energy for the first ten minutes. However, the very thing that helped them build their lead eventually caused their downfall as the postseason experience of the ‘Cats took over. 

With just over nine minutes remaining in the half, Gillespie drilled the team’s first three of the game to cut the lead to 17-14. Redshirt senior Caleb Daniels hit a three of his own a few possessions later to give Villanova its first lead since the 18:24 mark, reassuring the Villanova faithful that they were not going to be joining Kentucky as the next group of Wildcats sent packing after game one

The final six minutes of the half were all Villanova as the ‘Cats would go on a 15-2 run, sparked by an emphatic dunk from graduate forward Jermaine Samuels, to take a 35-25 lead into the half. 

“I thought we got off to a really, really good start in the first half and put a little scare in them,” Delaware head coach Martin Ingelsby said. “I think at the end of the first half and early part of the second half they were able to really extend that lead, and we were batting uphill from there.”

As a team who didn’t score more than 66 points in the Big East Tournament, there was some concern regarding the Wildcats’ ability to perform at a high enough level offensively to compete with some of the other top programs. An 80-point showing, with five ‘Cats in double figures, was just what Villanova needed. 

Junior guard Justin Moore led all scorers with 21 points, 17 in the second half, to go along with a game-high six assists. Samuels finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, while Gillespie added 14 points, four rebounds, and four assists. Daniels and redshirt sophomore Eric Dixon were the last two Wildcats to score in double-figures, adding 13 and 12 respectively. 

After starting the game 5-of-18 from the field and 0-4 from distance, it was a mental battle for the ‘Cats to find their offensive rhythm, especially knowing how familiar the Blue Hens were with their style of play. Delaware graduate forward Dylan Painter was a Wildcat at the beginning of his career and a member of the 2018 National Championship team. Leading up to Friday’s matchup, Wright talked about the insight Painter possessed surrounding “Villanova Basketball”.  

“Every team we play is going to have a great scouting report against us, all five guys on the floor,” Samuels said. “He (Painter) definitely knew [what we were going to do], but that’s the part of the game. That’s the journey of the game. It’s going to be slow sometimes. Sometimes it’s gonna be upbeat and things are going to be going well for us.”

With the lead at 19, and just over two minutes left on the clock, Samuels dove out of bounds to save the ball in a play that embodies everything Villanova preaches. 

“No, that’s not what we do here at Villanova,” Samuels said when asked if he debated not going for the ball. “We’re going to play a full 40. That’s just the way we play here no matter what’s going on around us.” 

For Moore and Dixon, this was the first “normal” NCAA Tournament game they played in after COVID canceled the 2020 Tournament and forced a bubble format in 2021. However, after experiencing the electric atmosphere of Madison Square Garden last weekend, the pair was not fazed by the bright lights of March Madness. 

However, there is always the possibility of a conference tournament hangover effect looming over teams as they take the national stage, especially those that win their tournaments. 

“I was really concerned about that,” Wright said. “ We took a lot of time off, we talked about it. And we did a pretty good job. We came out of it pretty good. I thought we looked fresh. I thought we were excited to play. It’s not that you’re not excited to play, it’s just that the other team seems so much more excited than you do. And I didn’t think it looked that way today.”

Villanova will have to continue this mindset into Sunday as they face off against a tough and physical Ohio State team in the Second Round, hoping to punch a ticket to the Tournament’s second weekend. 

“It only takes just the first game,” Wright said of the team’s ability to settle in. “Once you get through the first game, you’re good.”