Villanova Wildcats survive cold shot, Houston Cougars lead to NCAA Tournament Final Four


SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Go to enough Villanova press conferences and it becomes apparent very quickly that coach Jay Wright preaches certain things, day after day. It’s almost a robotic, stereotypical response from Wildcats players: Attitude. Basketball Villanova.

Villanova rarely strays from their principles, and it has brought them back to a familiar place for the Wildcats – they are heading to their third Final Four in the last six NCAA tournaments, with a chance to win their third national championship on that same stretch.

In a grind-it-out affair at the AT&T Center on Saturday night, 2-seeded Villanova took an early lead over 5-seeded Houston, never trailed and pulled away in the final minutes to a 50-44 win.

Villanova shot just 28.8% (15 for 52) from the field, making them the first team to win an Elite Eight game while shooting less than 30% from the floor since UCLA in 1971 (29%). according to ESPN Stats & Information Research. The Wildcats’ 50 points were also tied for the least on record in an Elite Eight victory.

“If you had told me before the game that we were going to hold them 28% from the field, they were going to shoot 23% from the 3-point line, and we would lose, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose Cougars also struggled on the field, shooting 29.8 percent (17 for 57). “I knew it would take a good team to beat us. And a good team did. I thought there were two big cultures tonight.”

In the Final Four, Villanova will face the winner of Sunday’s game between Kansas and Miami.

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 Houston’s top scorer with 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Houston had landed the first punch against every team it had played in the NCAA Tournament up to that point. The Cougars led UAB 31-14 after 10 minutes, 16-9 over Illinois and 19-12 over Arizona.

Wright expected the same when asked Friday afternoon how he plans to prepare his team for the intensity and physicality of Houston from the first tip.

“We’re going to take a little slap in the mouth,” Wright said. “We will have to make up our minds and then adjust as soon as we can.”

No adjustment was necessary.

The Wildcats landed the opening salvo, scoring the first five points and leading 16-8 after 10 minutes. They never dragged.

“Villanova was the aggressor in the first half,” Sampson said.

“We just weren’t aggressive, like the coach said,” Houston forward Fabian White added. “There was really nothing that shocked us. We just had to buckle up, really, in defence. They scored their first two points quite easily.”

Houston built a reputation under Sampson for pushing teams out of their comfort zone on the offensive end, but that’s exactly what Villanova did to the Cougars in the first half. The Wildcats constantly changed ball screens and dribble transfers, not allowing Houston to get off the dribble. The Cougars were forced to start their defense further, and their jumpers weren’t falling like they had in the first three games of the NCAA Tournament.

They took five 3-pointers in the first seven minutes of the game before becoming more aggressive after the dribble. But early on, Villanova wouldn’t let Houston win where it likes to win: on the offensive glass and in transition. The Cougars are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country and also excel at forcing turnovers and getting points in transition.

In the first 17 minutes, Houston had just one offensive rebound and forced just two turnovers, neither of which was a live turnover. Villanova forced Houston to work for everything offensively, then guarded the Cougars for 30 seconds at the other end.

Villanova was off Houston in Houston.

Or, if you prefer, Villanova was playing Villanova basketball.

Even though the shots weren’t falling, the Wildcats continued to stick to their fundamentals. They took care of the ball, they did their best to keep Houston off the glass, they didn’t allow anything in transition, they moved the ball efficiently and used their usual assortment of pivots and counterfeits to create space and get to the free throw line.

Attitude. Basketball Villanova.

“We just have to stick together and say attitude,” Wildcats guard Collin Gillespie said. “That’s what we’re proud of, just playing hard for 40 minutes.”

“We knew it was going to be a battle,” he added. “They’re well trained, they play very hard on every possession. They go to the glass at both ends of the floor. It’s something we talk about every time we get on the floor – make sure we play hard and we rival every possession. We’re proud of that. We just make sure we’re playing Villanova basketball every time we step on the floor.

Houston badly needed a run that didn’t materialize for the first 30 minutes of the game. The Cougars are one of the best teams in the country at scoring runs to extend a lead or erase a deficit. Unfortunately for them, Villanova is even better at preventing runs.

According to, a website that tracks advanced college basketball statistics, Villanova is the best power conference team in the nation at preventing sustained runs. Villanova has allowed runs 10-0 just six times all season, or 0.17 per game, according to the site.

The biggest run Houston managed the entire game was a 6-0 streak that cut Villanova’s lead to two with 5:25 remaining. For a team that had the third-most 10-0 points in the nation, it was crippling for their offense.

Every time Houston seemed to gain momentum in front of the pro-Cougars crowd, Villanova responded. Daniels hit a pair of big shots midway through the first half after Houston finally found a rhythm offensively. Gillespie, who had just six points and didn’t play well for much of the game thanks to Jamal Shead’s elite defense, fouled well outside the 3-point line and hit two free throws at the end of the first half.

Daniels started the second half with another big shot, this time a 3 with 19:07 to go. And then after Houston cut the lead to five early in the second half, Samuels headed down the lane, rigged two Cougars defenders, then finished the basket plus a foul.

“Having experienced guys playing in that environment like a real road game, they’re making a run, a very, very good team that you know can run races, and for them to keep their cool and get a few saves , hit big shots like Collin did,” Wright said. “Having veteran players is key for that, guys who have been through this moment before.”

Houston came out much more aggressively in the second half, grabbing three offensive rebounds and scoring five second-chance points in the first four minutes. The Cougars were having success around the basket and getting defensive saves, but their outside shots weren’t falling. They shot just 1-for-20 from 3-point range against Villanova after going 9-for-20 against Arizona on Thursday night.

“We had a lot of chances. They didn’t come in,” Sampson said. “It happens.”

When Houston finally ran off – an 11-2 surge to cut Villanova’s lead to two, the closest since the start of the game – it was the Wildcats’ best player who pulled off the big shot. Gillespie buried a contested jumper on J’Wan Roberts with 5:02 remaining, and Houston went scoreless for the next four minutes.

A short Shead jumper in the lane cut Villanova’s lead to four with 1:25 remaining, but Villanova immediately responded with a contact layup from Samuels. However, Houston wasn’t done yet. Kyler Edwards hit a pair of free throws, then Roberts forced a jump ball after Justin Moore slipped, appearing to suffer a lower right leg injury. But Taze Moore’s layup on possession that followed ended in a setback for Houston.

A pair of free throws from Gillespie pushed Villanova’s lead to six, and Houston wouldn’t come close.

Villanova’s celebrations at the final buzzer were muted, however, given Moore’s potentially serious injury. He went to the locker room on crutches during the trophy ceremony, and Wright didn’t seem optimistic about his future availability.

Moore, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, is second on the team in points, third in rebounds and second in assists.

His potential absence will be a storyline all week in New Orleans, but for now the Wildcats are celebrating another chance to cut the nets.

“It feels good. It never gets old,” Wright said of his time in the Final Four. “It’s the dream of every college basketball player and coach. It’s the ultimate. We’re going to enjoy it tonight and tomorrow. [Then we’re going to] rest and get to work. We get to keep playing; that’s what we appreciate the most.”


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