Wildcats pull away from Winthrop late to advance in NCAA tournament

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Nothing’s going to come easy for Villanova without Collin Gillespie.

And that was certainly the case Friday night.

No. 5 seed Villanova struggled again from deep and couldn’t shake No. 12 seed Winthrop for much of the game but advanced in the NCAA tournament with a 73-63 win at Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.

Winthrop, the Big South champs, took a 23-1 record into the game, the second-best record in the country behind undefeated Gonzaga.

Here’s our 10 Instant Observations on Villanova’s tournament-opening win:

1. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was absolutely huge for the Wildcats, with 22 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 blocks. His slam with two minutes left gave ‘Nova a 10-point lead and really for the first time all night gave Wildcats fans a chance to make a deep breath. Robinson-Earl didn’t have a great shooting night - he was 0-for-4 from 3 - but he did everything else imaginable, making foul shots, driving the lane and drawing double teams, bringing the ball up the court and defending. He was great.

2. Robinson-Earl is the first Villanova player with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in a game since Maalik Wayns had 39 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists in a loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 14, 2012.

3. Villanova really seemed to have Winthrop on the ropes early. The Wildcats led 16-6 six minutes in and we were all probably thinking blowout, but they really let Winthrop off the hook by just bombing away on low-percentage 3’s instead of patiently working the ballin the half-court. At one point, ‘Nova was 0-for-7 from 3 and 6-for-7 inside the stripe, but they kept settling for 3's. This is ‘Nova’s worst 3-point shooting team since 2013 and they just take too many of them. Once they stopped, they took command of the game. Villanova finished 8-for-26 from beyond for 31 percent, their fourth straight game under 35 percent.

4. The Wildcats also really ramped up its defense in the second half. Winthrop made one field goal from 15:26 to 6:43 - a span of 8:43 - shooting 1-for-7 with four turnovers during that stretch, which allowed 'Nova to finally open up some breathing room. The Wildcats used a 12-2 run to turn a precarious 48-45 lead with 11 minutes left into a 60-47 lead just under seven minutes left, and Winthrop got no closer than eight points the rest of the way.

5. ‘Nova got a huge lift from an unexpected source. Rarely used sophomore Bryan Antoine, McDonald’s All-America at the Ranney School in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, has struggled with injuries for much of his college career and had only played in seven games this year totaling 69 minutes. But when ‘Nova couldn’t get anything going on offense early in the second half, Antoine made back-to-back 3’s and then added two foul shots late for eight points. This is a kid who had only scored 27 points and made four 3’s in his entire college career. A game like that in the NCAA Tournament? Clutch.

6. Another benefit of ‘Nova finally taking its offense into the paint was they got into the bonus quickly in the second half. After attempting just three free throws (and making two) in the game's first 25 minutes, the Wildcats attempted 21 foul shots (making 16) in the final 15 minutes.

7. Justin Moore, with a week to rest his sore ankle, looked like his old self against Winthrop, finishing with 15 points, three blocks, three rebounds and two assists. He was able to play 37 minutes on that ankle, which is pretty amazing considering there were questions if he’d even play again this year after he got hurt against Providence.

8. ‘Nova also got big contributions from Jermaine Samuels (11 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists), Caleb Daniels (10 points, 3 rebounds) and Cole Swider, who had one of his better games in a while. Swider made a couple early 3’s, the first time in nine games he’s made more than one 3 in a game.

9. One ‘Nova player that deserves a ton of credit is Chris Arcidiacono, who wasn't in the rotation at all before Gillespie got hurt but has had to play significant minutes in his absence. Arch II played only 17 minutes all year before Gillespie got hurt, but he’s played 71 minutes in the last three games and although he’s only scored three points, he’s run the floor beautifully when he’s been out there. He’s only committed one turnover running the point in those 71 minutes, none in the Big East tourney game against Georgetown or last night against Winthrop.

10. Villanova got a break when No. 13 North Texas stunned No. 4 Purdue in overtime on the other side of Villanova’s draw in the South Regional, the first Tourney win in school history. The Wildcats will face North Texas on Sunday at 8:45 p.m. on TNT. North Texas is ranked 10th out of 347 teams in Division 1 in team defense, allowing just 61 points per game. North Texas, 18-9, finished 5th in Conference USA before sweeping four games in the conference tournament to steal a bid. The last No. 13 seed to advance to the Sweet 16? That would be La Salle, with its 76-74 win over Ole Miss on Tyrone Garland’s game-winning Southwest Philly Floater in Kansas City.

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