No. 3 Villanova survived a surprising challenge from unranked Boston College in the opener of the 2K Empire Classic on Wednesday.
The task will become much more daunting for the Wildcats in the championship game Thursday night against No. 18 Arizona State in Uncasville, Conn. The Sun Devils defeated Rhode Island 94-88.
Villanova rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit for a 76-67 victory over the Eagles thanks in large part to 18 points and 10 rebounds from Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Collin Gillespie added 15 points while Justin Moore and Caleb Daniels added 14 each.
The Wildcats looked out of sync for stretches but ultimately made enough plays down the stretch for the season-opening win.
“I really do feel fortunate that we have an experienced team going through this,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “I constantly think about, if this was last year and we had all these new bodies in there and we were going through all this, it would be disastrous in our program.”
In this season filled with unusual circumstances because of COVID-19, Wright isn’t fully paying attention to lofty national rankings.
“I hope we live out those predictions,” Wright said. “That would be cool. But as you know we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Villanova’s depth was tested a bit as it played without injured Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Bryan Antoine. The Wildcats received only eight points from their bench but the imposing starting lineup was enough to overcome Boston College.
Gillespie didn’t shoot well (5 for 16), but he provided the type of senior leadership Wright has relied on for two decades on the Main Line.
“Having seniors with leadership roles is like a security blanket for me,” Wright said.
Arizona State also won its opener by overcoming a pesky unranked team in Rhode Island, which was a late replacement for Baylor because of COVID-19 issues.
In a game marred by 55 fouls, the Sun Devils received 26 points, six rebounds and five assists from Remy Martin. It was the 26th time in Martin’s career that he eclipsed the 20-point mark.
Arizona State also picked up a huge lift from freshman Marcus Bagley, who had 16 points in his first collegiate game.
“It was surreal at first,” said Bagley, who knocked down three clutch free throws in the final minute. “I’ve dreamed about playing for Arizona State and to be finally be out there with ASU across my chest felt amazing.”
The Sun Devils’ program has been revived under the guidance of head coach Bobby Hurley, a two-time national champion as the point guard at Duke in 1991 and ’92.
Hurley is used to winning and refuses to be fazed by national rankings.
“I’m not going to run from the fact that these people do see what we have,” Hurley said. “There’s expectations. I’m not going to downplay those. I believe that those people that have put us in that category, or whatever the rankings are, I think it’s justifiable going into the season.”
Arizona State’s six-point season-opening win was far from artistic. But any win counts the same.
“The fact that I’m this optimistic right now I think says a lot,” Hurley said. “From my standpoint, what I’m seeing, it’s given me every indication that it could be my most talented team, the team with the most potential.”
-Field Level Media