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Nothing changed in eight years. Despite the addition of Connecticut, despite the loaded state of the Big East this year.
The conference hierarchy is still Villanova … followed by everyone else. Jay Wright’s team still owns the conference. For the fifth time since the league was realigned, the Wildcats and their fans celebrated a Big East Tournament title. The road was challenging, with three tight games and doubts along the way.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Second-seeded Villanova found a way each night, edging St. John’s, Connecticut and on Saturday night, Creighton. Collin Gillespie — the Big East Player of the Year, the accomplished fifth-year senior who has improved so much in his five years at Villanova — led the way in the 54-48 triumph at the Garden, scoring eight of the Wildcats’ final 10 points.
Gillespie’s back-to-back 3-pointers, both over the outstretched arms of Creighton’s 7-foot-1 center, Ryan Kalkbrenner, closed an 11-2 run, turning a four-point deficit into a five-point lead with 2:04 remaining.
Creighton got within two with 37.5 seconds left after two Trey Alexander free throws, but Justin Moore scored inside, and the Wildcats held the Bluejays without a field goal for the final 3:49.
Down the stretch, all that experience came through. Young Creighton, which started two freshmen and a sophomore, missed 11 of its last 12 shots. Gillespie and Moore executed, and delivered. And now Villanova (26-7) may wind up with a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament’s East Region, and a chance to play at home at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on the second weekend.
Gillespie finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists while Moore added 16 points and six rebounds. Kalkbrenner led Creighton (22-11) with 19 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. The Bluejays have reached the title game five times, but have yet to win it all.
The opening 20 minutes were uneasy on the eyes, with 10 combined turnovers and two made 3-point attempts in 26 tries. The leading scorer was Moore, with all of six points.
The Bluejays’ defense — one of the big surprises of this season’s team — kept them in it, limiting Villanova to 8-for-27 shooting and only two free-throw attempts. The Bluejays weren’t much better on their end, missing all 13 of their 3-point attempts and registering only two second-chance points. Still, it was 19-18 Villanova at the break, one of the lowest scoring halves in the history of the Big East Tournament championship game.
It didn’t change much for either team after the break. They didn’t suddenly get hot. Villanova eventually created some breathing room, reeling off an 11-2 run to go ahead by eight, 33-25, on a Moore 3-pointer with 12:19 to go. Until Kalkbrenner scored inside on the ensuing possession, Creighton had gone 5:37 without a made field goal, managing two Kalkbrenner free throws in that span.
But that Kalkbrenner score started a hot streak for Creighton, six consecutive trips with baskets, and just its second made 3-pointer in 20 attempts at that point. An Alexander 3-pointer, following an Arthur Kaluma offensive rebound, pulled them even at 36 with 8:07 left, forcing Wright to call a timeout.
And when Kalkbrenner threw down an alley-oop, to cap an 18-6 run, Creighton had a four-point edge with 5:25 left, forcing another Villanova timeout. The Wildcats answered, as they always do — and as they have from the moment the new Big East was formed eight years ago.