Villanova survives cold shooting, on to Final Four
8: 27 PM ET
Jeff BorzelloESPN Staff Writer
- Basketball recruiting insider.
- Joined ESPN in 2014.
- Graduate of University of Delaware.
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Go to enough Villanova news conferences and it becomes evident very quickly that coach Jay Wright preaches certain things, day in and day out. It’s almost a formulaic, robotic answer from Wildcats players. Villanova basketball.
Villanova rarely strays from its principles, and it has led them back to a familiar place for the Wildcats — they’re headed to their third Final Four in the past six NCAA tournaments, with a chance to win their third national championship over that same stretch.
In a grind-it-out affair at the AT&T Center on Saturday night, 2-seed Villanova got out to an early lead over 5-seed Houston, never trailed and pulled away in the final minutes for a 50-44 win.
Villanova shot just 28.8% (15-for-52) from the field, making it the first team to win an Elite Eight game while shooting under 30% from the floor since UCLA in 1971 (29%), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Wildcats’ 50 points were also tied for the fewest ever in an Elite Eight win.
“If you had told me before the game that we’re going to hold them to 28% from the field, they’re going to shoot 23% from the 3-point line, and we’d lose, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose Cougars also struggled from the field, shooting 29.8% (17-for-57). “I knew it was going be a tough team to beat us. A good team won. It was two great cultures. “
Jermaine Samuels led the way for the Wildcats with 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Caleb Daniels came off the bench to score 12 points. Taze Moore was the top scorer for Houston, going for 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Houston had landed the first punch against every team it had played in the NCAA tournament until this point. The Cougars were up 31-14 on UAB after 10 minutes, 16-9 on Illinois and 19-12 against Arizona.
Wright expected more when he was asked how he would prepare his team for Houston’s intensity from the first tip.
” “We’re going take a little smack on the mouth,” Wright stated. “We’ll need to get a feel for the situation and then adjust as quickly as possible. “
No adjustments were required.
The Wildcats landed the opening salvo, scoring the first five points and leading 16-8 after 10 minutes. They never trailed.
“Villanova was the aggressor in the first half,” Sampson said.
” We didn’t come out aggressively, as Coach said,” Houston forward Fabian White said. “There wasn’t really anything that surprised us. We just had to be strong on defense. They scored their first two points very quickly. “
Houston has built a reputation under Sampson for taking teams out of their comfort zone on the offensive end, but that’s exactly what Villanova did to the Cougars in the first half. Houston was unable to get downhill from the dribble because the Wildcats were constantly switching ball-screens and dribble pass-offs. The Cougars had to move their defense further out and their jumpers didn’t fall as much as they did in the first three NCAA tournament games.
They took five 3-pointers within the first seven minutes before getting more aggressive with the dribble. Villanova refused to let Houston win on the offensive glass or in transition. The Cougars are among the top offensive rebounding teams in America and excel at forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition.
Through the first 17 minutes, Houston had just one offensive rebound and forced just two turnovers, neither of which were live-ball turnovers. Villanova was forcing Houston to work for everything offensively and then making the Cougars guard for 30 seconds at the other end.
Villanova was out-Houstoning Houston.
Or, to be more precise, Villanova was playing Villanova Basketball.
Even though shots weren’t falling, the Wildcats remained true to their fundamentals. They took care of the ball, they did their best to keep Houston off the glass, they allowed nothing in transition, they moved the ball effectively and utilized their usual assortment of pivots and pump-fakes to create space and get to the free throw line.
Attitude. Villanova basketball.
“We just have to stick together and say attitude,” Wildcats guard Collin Gillespie said. “That’s what we pride ourselves on, just playing hard for 40 minutes. “
” We knew it would be a fight,” he said. “They are well-coached and they work hard on every possession. They are able to reach the glass from both ends of the floor. This is something we talk about every single time we step onto the floor. We want to make sure we play hard and compete for every possession. That’s what we take pride in. We just make sure we play Villanova basketball every single time we step onto the court. “
Houston badly needed a run that failed to materialize for the first 30 minutes of the game. The Cougars are among the best at scoring runs to extend a lead, or erase a deficit. Villanova is better at stopping runs, unfortunately for them.
According to EvanMiya.com, a website that tracks advanced college basketball statistics, Villanova is the joint-best power-conference team in the country at preventing sustained runs. Villanova has allowed 10-0 runs just six times all season, or 0. 17 per game, according to the site.
The biggest run Houston managed all game was a 6-0 stretch that cut Villanova’s lead to two with 5: 25 remaining. For a team that had the third-most 10-0 runs in the country, it was crippling for its offense.
Every time Houston seemed to be gaining momentum in front the pro-Cougars crowds, Villanova countered. After Houston had finally found its offensive rhythm, Daniels made a pair of huge shots in the second half. Gillespie, who had just six points and didn’t play well for much of the game thanks to Jamal Shead‘s elite defense, drew a foul well outside the 3-point line and hit two free throws late in the first half.
Daniels started the second half with another big shot, this time a 3 with 19: 07 left. After Houston had cut the lead to five in the second period, Samuels drove to lane and pump-faked two Cougars defenses before finishing the basket plus a foul.
“Having experienced guys playing in that environment like a true road game, them making a run, a really, really good team that you know can get on runs, and for them to keep their composure and get a couple stops, hit big shots like Collin did,” Wright said. “Having veterans players is key to that, guys who have been there before, is key. “
Houston did come out with far more aggression in the second half, grabbing three offensive rebounds and scoring five second-chance points in the first four minutes. Although the Cougars were having success at the basket and getting stops defensively they couldn’t make their outside shots fall. They shot just 1-for-20 from 3-point range against Villanova after going 9-for-20 against Arizona on Thursday night. We had many opportunities. Sampson stated that they didn’t go in. “That happens. “
When Houston finally did go on a run — an 11-2 spurt to cut Villanova’s lead to two, the closest it had been since the opening tip-off — it was the Wildcats’ best player who came up with the big shot. Gillespie buried a contested jumper over J’Wan Roberts with 5: 02 remaining, and Houston didn’t score a point for the next four minutes.
A short Shead jumper in the lane cut Villanova’s lead to four with 1: 25 remaining, but Villanova responded immediately with a Samuels’ layup through contact. Houston was not done, however. Kyler Edwards hit a pair of free throws, and then Roberts forced a jump-ball after Justin Moore slipped, appearing to suffer an injury to his lower right leg. Houston was able to score on Taze Moore’s layup in the following possession.
A pair of Gillespie free throws increased Villanova’s lead to six and Houston couldn’t get closer.
Villanova’s celebrations at the final buzzer were muted, however, given Moore’s potentially serious injury. Wright was not optimistic about his future availability and went to the locker room with crutches.
Moore is a junior guard who stands at 6’4″ and is second on the team for points, rebounds, and assists.
His possible absence will be a major storyline in New Orleans this week, but for now the Wildcats are celebrating another chance to cut down on nets.
” It feels great. Wright spoke of the thrill of reaching the Final Four. It’s the ultimate goal for every college basketball player and coach. It’s the ultimate. We are going to have a great time tonight and tomorrow. [Then we’re going to] Get up and go to work. We can keep playing, that’s what we love the most. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.