Champs again: Villanova tops Creighton to win Big East title

Villanova players pose with the tournament trophy after defeating Creighton in the final of the Big East conference tournament Saturday, March 12, 2022, in New York

File photo: Villanova players pose with the tournament trophy after defeating Creighton in the final of the Big East conference tournament Saturday, March 12, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

While Collin Gillespie waited to twirl the souvenir net from atop a ladder he could not have climbed a year ago, he was spotted by another former Villanova star who knows how to win a championship game in crunch time.

Kris Jenkins joked maybe it was his and Gillespie’s shared uniform No. 2 that made the Wildcats so fearless when the outcome was at stake. Or maybe it’s just the Wildcat Way forged under coach Jay Wright of shaking off nerves, bad shots, a stifling defense, whatever distraction got in their way, to always hit that next big shot and win the next big game.

“I mean, that’s what we expect,” Jenkins said.

Gillespie missed the Big East Tournament a season ago, then won it for the Wildcats this year.

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It’s what they expect.

Gillespie nailed consecutive late 3-pointers that put No. 8 Villanova ahead for good, and the Wildcats beat Creighton 54-48 to take the Big East Tournament championship Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

“This is why I came back,” he said as he held his tournament Most Outstanding Player trophy.

Gillespie missed both postseason tournaments in 2021 with a torn ligament in his left knee. But a year later he was courageous in the waning minutes, hitting the go-ahead 3 over the outstretched arm of 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner with 2:44 left.

The 6-foot-3 senior then grabbed a rebound at the other end and came right back and drained another jumper over Kalkbrenner, the Big East defensive player of the year, for a 50-45 lead — sending the Wildcats on their way to yet another championship under Wright.

“I’m still kind of surprised when he makes those plays,” Wright said. “It’s incredible. But we put it in his hands to make those plays.”

Villanova won the Big East Tournament under Wright in 2015, and then three straight from 2017-19. The school also captured national championships in 2016 and 2018 under Wright.

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The 2016 victory, of course, was one of the most famous title games ever when Jenkins hit a buzzer-beating 3 to win it. Jenkins and 2016 teammate Ryan Arcidiacono cheered on the Wildcats at The Garden. Arcidiacono flashed the V sign as he snapped a selfie with Jenkins as confetti fluttered around them.

Justin Moore and the rest of Villanova’s starters circled Gillespie and fired him up before he went to the free-throw line in the final seconds. The two-time conference player of the year hit both and was soon mobbed by teammates at midcourt to kick off the championship party.

Then they watched Gillespie take his turn with the scissors cutting down the net.

“He’s just playing with absolutely no fear because he knows he’s put the work in,” Wright said.

Gillespie, who had knee surgery during last season’s Big East Tournament and watched postseason games from the stands, led the second-seeded Wildcats (26-7) with 17 points and Moore had 16 on a night when points were tough to come by until the furious final minutes.

Kalkbrenner scored 19 but the fourth-seeded Bluejays (22-11) again left MSG empty-handed. Creighton has lost in all four trips to the Big East championship game, including 2014, 2017, and last season to Georgetown.

The winner was going to come down to whichever team could make a few shots in succession after a dreary start to the game. The Bluejays got going first when Alex O’Connell hit a 3 for a 41-39 lead and waved his arms to cheering fans down the court. Kalkbrenner dunked and unleashed a guttural yell as he ran to midcourt and was mobbed by teammates.

Gillespie, a fifth-year senior, was the one who bailed out the Wildcats.

“It’s really all I can think about, is how grateful I am to be with these guys again,” he said.

It started to become clear with each clang why Creighton can’t win the big one in New York. The Bluejays missed all 13 3-point attempts in the first half. O’Connell was the worst offender; he went 0 for 5. And the 3 was in Trey Alexander’s name only — he missed three. Creighton even missed two of its four free-throw attempts.

These were not the same Bluejays who outscored top-seeded Providence 31-2 in about 10 1/2 minutes during a 27-point rout a night earlier in the semifinals. Creighton shot 32% on 3s this season. That percentage, any percentage above 0, would have given the Bluejays the lead at halftime.

“We just had a night where nobody could make one. And we still had a chance to win,” coach Greg McDermott said.

Villanova missed 11 of 13 3-pointers and only led 19-18 — not a misprint — at the break.

The Bluejays, picked eighth in the Big East preseason poll with no starters back from last year’s Sweet 16 squad, missed 26 of 29 3-pointers. The Wildcats went only 8 of 32.

But one player hit the only two anyone will remember.

“At the end we got Gillespied,” McDermott said.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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