The plan seemed to be working. Visiting Temple had Villanova on the ropes. The reigning National champions, who haven’t lost a Big Five game since falling to the Owls in 2012, a span of 23 games, were playing from behind and struggling offensively.
With Temple putting a defensive clamp on Eric Paschall, Phil Booth and Collin Gillespie, the Wildcats needed someone else to step up to save them.
Enter Jermaine Samuels, who came into the game averaging 3.0 points, while shooting 4-for-20 from three-point range.
"Our key matchups were Booth, Paschall and Gillespie," admitted Temple’s Nate Pierre-Louis, after Samuels came off the bench to knock down three straight three-pointers and score 15 second-half points to trigger Villanova’s 69-59 come-from-behind win Wednesday night.
"He was really the X-factor and he killed us. We weren’t really prepared for him."
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The 6-foot-7 sophomore from Franklin, MA made them pay on a career night, which appeared to shock everybody but his coach. "Actually, we were more surprised that he hadn’t been making shots because he always shoots the ball well in practice," said Jay Wright, whose 7-2, No. 21 ranked club has now reeled off five-straight since back-to-back early losses to Michigan and Furman.
"We figured it was coming. That’s how a team grows. Somebody steps up-- or they don’t—and you learn from that," Wright added. "When they step up like that your team gains confidence. We know Main-o (Samuels) can shoot. But until you do it in a big game and your teammates feel it, it doesn’t really impact your team’s confidence. This impacts our confidence."
That’s a scary proposition for Saint Joseph’s and Penn coming up Saturday and Tuesday, followed by a trip to powerhouse Kansas before the rest of the Big East tries to dethrone the Wildcats. But as far as Samuels is concerned, while his big night can’t help but boost his confidence, it won’t change his perspective.
"I was just playing off my teammates really," said Samuels, who played sparingly as a freshman last year, in part due to a broken bone in his hand. "My whole focus is defense, but in our offense, its always catch and shoot."
"I was in the right place at the right time and hit shots," he explained. "I wasn’t frustrated about it before because everyone else had confidence in me, It just so happened I hit shots this game."
While Temple couldn’t have been expected it, outgoing Owls’ coach Fran Dunphy, said that’s typical of Villanova.
"Those threes by Samuels, that’s what good programs do," said Dunphy, after Villanova went on a 12-0 run—five by Samuels—to seize a 55-47 lead with 3:14 left. "Somebody steps up that you’re not necessarily anticipating right away. Samuels certainly did it for them tonight."
"I think this is a phenomenal basketball program and a great culture Jay has established," said the Temple head coach, who received another warm ovation from the crowd before the game and was later extolled by Wright as "an example for everyone across the country."
While Wright would rather focus on the next task at hand than any of that, he concedes these games do have value.
"What’s great about Big Five games is you never know what’s going to happen," said Wright. "You’re going against teams that know you well and teach you how good coaches are going to prepare for you."
"These games always prepare us for the Big East," he added. "That’s why we love playing them."
Nothing personal, Jay. But having now gone down 24 straight—and probably counting—times to these Wildcats, the affection from the rest of the city can’t be mutual.