Villanova overthrows Houston to reach the Final Four

SAN ANTONIO — Saturday’s round of 16 between No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 5 seed Houston was reminiscent of college basketball games played decades ago: two stubborn, devouring defensive juggernauts from rebounds scraping, clawing and barreling through defenders to hard-to-come points.

One team, the lower-seeded Cougars, was vying for a run to its first national championship in program history and carried the best roster it had had in years. The other, Villanova, is looking to reposition itself as one of Division I’s most feared programs after a few dismal tournament seasons.

In the end, coach Jay Wright’s Villanova team was too aggressive, too poised and too focused for Houston, who seemed ill-prepared to face an opponent with whom they had so much in common. And even though the Cougars made a big run in the second half to reduce what seemed to turn into a romp, the Wildcats never gave up the lead and won, 50-44, to advance to the Final Four for the fourth times under Wright. and the first time since 2018.

“It was like playing against ourselves,” Villanova senior goalkeeper Caleb Daniels said after the game. “They were as physical as us. It was a little street fight where every possession was trying to get a rebound.

With just over a minute left in the game, Villanova’s leading scorer Jermaine Samuels made a layup to give the Wildcats a 6-point lead, which had blunted Houston’s attempts to come back from 11 points halfway through the half. Houston’s defense, which had suffocated in its second half, forced a turnover but couldn’t capitalize, and as Villanova star guard Collin Gillespie drained two free throws late, the Cougars’ chances were gone.

“It was right there,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “We needed a big hit. In many close games this year, someone has intervened.

He added: “But we didn’t.”

Wright’s team, after an erratic regular season that saw them fall out of the top 10 after being ranked No. 4, seemed to be playing their best basketball when it counted. The Wildcats have now won nine straight games, including three wins in the Big East Tournament for that conference title. They entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed in the South Region and overtook Delaware, Ohio State and Michigan to reach the Round of 16.

Villanova won national championships in 2016 and 2018, with rosters brimming with future NBA talent and elite guard play, which has been a driving force in Wright’s tenure.

Villanova’s team in 2016 included Mikal Bridges of the Phoenix Suns, Josh Hart of the Portland Trailblazers and Jalen Brunson of the Mavericks. In 2018, it was Donte DiVincenzo, now playing for the Sacramento Kings, who lifted the Wildcats past Michigan for their third national title in program history.

Gillespie, a fifth-year senior who was Big East Player of the Year, is the latest in a long line of game-changing guards looking to lead his team to another national championship. He led the Wildcats in points (15.9) and assists (3.3) this season while battling ankle injuries.

On Saturday, Houston mostly took Gillespie out of the game, allowing him to fire just one shot in the first half.

“He didn’t have to prove he could pull off the big shots,” Wright said. “He could get shots for his teammates, and that comes with humility. If you’re arrogant and feel like you have to show what you can do, then maybe you’re not making good decisions.

Houston’s defense and ability to soak up offensive rebounds had been an impenetrable combination in the tournament until Saturday night.

The Cougars outplayed and outplayed the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as Illinois and Arizona, never having met a fully prepared opponent for their collection of strength, size and athleticism. Until falling on Villanova.

The Wildcats controlled the game as they often do: using long possessions to set up a good appearance and dictate the pace.

Villanova’s ability to neutralize Houston’s forces helped the team outlast the Cougars, even though Houston shot within 2 points as they tried to come back. Houston thrives on the mistakes of its opponents, but Villanova is a disciplined team that limits them.

The Cougars, known for their ability to box and create extra possessions on offense, could only pull two offensive rebounds in the first half and could not rely on their ability to create turnovers by attacking ball screens.

On offense, the Cougars were inconsistent, looking the worst they had in the entire tournament.

“We had a lot of opportunities. They didn’t come in,” Sampson said. “It happens. I’m disappointed that we lost. I felt it was a game we could win. No should win, but could win. We had to deserve it.

But Villanova also underperformed in attack. One of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation, the Wildcats shot less than 30 percent from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes, entering the half without a single point from Gillespie.

Samuels, who powered Villanova over Michigan in the Round of 16, finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Since defeating Michigan in 2018, Villanova had been knocked out of the tournament by Purdue in 2019 and lost to 2021 champion Baylor in the round of 16 last year.

Houston’s program had been dormant for years before Sampson arrived in 2014.

Yet against Villanova, that identity he’d forged of being tough and hyperathletic, similar to how the Cougars had played decades ago, wasn’t enough. A few missed shots and a couple of lost rebounds kept Sampson’s team from reaching the Final Four they wanted.

“Credit Villanova,” he said. “In a year where I don’t think there are any great college basketball teams, Villanova has as good a chance as anyone.”

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