NCAA March Madness: Villanova tops Houston, advances to another Final 4

Jermaine Samuels had 16 points and 9 rebounds, Villanova held Houston to 5 percent shooting from 3-point range, and the Wildcats advanced to their 3rd Final 4 in the last six Tournaments with a 50-44 win over defensive powerhouse Houston Saturday in the NCAA Tournament South Region Championship Game at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.

The 94 total points tied the fewest ever in a regional final. Syracuse beat Marquette 55-39 in the 2013 East Region final in Washington, DC Villanova’s 50 points tied the fewest ever by a winning team in a regional final. UCLA beat Memphis 50-45 in the 2006 Oakland Regional final. Houston’s 44 points are the fewest against Villanova in any Tournament game since the Wildcats beat North Carolina 56-44 in Birmingham, Ala., on the way to the 1985 national title. That was a year before college basketball began using a shot clock.

Villanova junior guard Justin Moore crumpled to the floor in the final seconds with what appeared to be a serious lower leg injury. No immediate word on his status.

The last team to win any NCAA Tourney game with fewer points was Wisconsin, which beat Pitt 47-43 in St. Louis in the first round in 2016.

Villanova is now 20-3 in its last 23 NCAA Tournament games.

Here’s our 10 Observations off Villanova’s 7th trip to the Final 4 (including 1971, which was later vacated).

1. Houston is one of the best defensive teams in the country and one of the best rebounding teams in the country, but Villanova beat the Cougars in both areas, and that was the only way they were going to win this game. Clean looks were rare for either team, but Villanova held Houston to 1-for-20 from 3-point range, the 2n/a-worst 3-point shooting performance by any team in the Tournament over the past decade. Villanova was 5-for-21 from 3, which is terrible for them, but Houston allows the fewest field goals per game in the country, and the Wildcats made enough shots to squeak this one out.

2. Houston is No. 2 in the country in rebounding margin and No. 8 on the offensive glass, but somehow the Wildcats beyondbounded Houston, 26-24. The big challenge was keeping the Cougars off the offensive glass, and Villanova did a great job of that in the first half, allowing just four offensive rebounds leading to two points. In the second half, Houston piled up an incredible 11 offensive rebounds but managed only eight points off those boards, and that was crucial. Houston getting kept second-chance opportunities, but ‘Nova managed to defend repeated chances and did it without getting into foul trouble. Villanova became only the 3rd team this year to out-rebound Houston. Incredible.

3. Villanova continued its brilliance at the foul line, making all 15 of its free throws. The Wildcats, the No. 1 foul shooting team in NCAA history, is now an incredible 53-for-59 from the free throw line in its four Tournament games, a ridiculous 90 percent. The last team that reached at least to the Sweet 16 and shot 90 percent from the line was 2016 UConn, which shot 91 percent.

4. Samuels has been very good all year, but he’s taken his game to another level in the Tournament. He made 6 of 10 shots Saturday night, and the rest of Villanova shot just 9-for-42. He added 10 rebounds and shot 3-for-3 from the line for 15 points, and he’s now is averaging 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in Villanova’s four Tournament wins and shooting 63 percent. Going back to the Big East Tournament, he’s had seven or more rebounds in seven straight games. Samuels made 4 of 5 shots in the second half, including a huge drive in the lane through traffic with 1:06 left to turn a 46-42 lead into a six-point advantage. Dazzling performance.

5. You don’t want to speculate about Moore, but it did not look good. Moore was dribbling along the left wing and starting to drive to the basket with 35 seconds left and ‘Nova up four when he crumbled to the ground and grimaced, grabbing his lower left leg. He was helped off the court and watched the rest of the game from the bench. As soon as Villanova won, his teammates ran right over to console him, Moore would be a massive loss if he can’t play in the Final 4. He’s averaging 15 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, and Villanova has just about zero depth. Jay Wright has only played six guys in the Tournament, and Moore rarely comes off the court unless he’s in foul trouble. A potentially heartbreaking injury for Moore, a three-year starter.

6. Houston’s five percent shooting from 3-point range is their worst (minimum of 10 attempts) in any game as far back as available records go. Their worst over the past 12 years are a couple eight percent shooting performances in 2012 against Memphis and Tulane (both 1-for-12). The worst previous 3-point shooting figure against Villanova on record belongs to Monmouth, which was 1-for-19 against the Wildcats in 2010 for 5.3 percent. The last team to shoot worse than five percent in the Tournament was Syracuse, which was 0-for-10 against Dayton in 2014. Some of it was great Wildcat defense and some of it was just Houston missing whatever open looks they got.

7. Collin Gillespie hasn’t had a great shooting Tournament and he was just 1-for-6 Saturday night and 0-for-4 from 3. But he still does so many positive things for the Wildcats, especially in a game like this against a ferocious defensive team that makes every possession an adventure. Gillespie was his usual calm self, committed just one turnover running the offense and added five rebounds. And of course made all four of his foul shots, including two with 26 seconds left that gave Villanova a six-point lead. Gillespie is shooting 27 percent from 3 in the Tournament (4-for-15) after shooting 48 percent during the season. But he still does an awful lot to help this team win.

8. Wright was asked after the game how his players can always stay so calm at crunch time in big games, and he said, “They’re calm. I’m not, but they are.” And it’s so true. This team never panics. No matter what’s going on. They play smart, they play disciplined, they play under control, no matter what the situation. And that doesn’t change no matter what year it is and no matter who’s on the team. It’s such a hallmark of this program, and Wright deserves a tremendous amount of credit for instilling that into his players. The situation is never too big for them. It would have been easy to lose focus after Moore got hurt. That play was actually a turnover, and Houston got the ball down four with a chance to make it a one-possession game. But Villanova defended like it defended all night, Taza Moore missed a layup with 30 seconds left and Eric Dixon went up strong to pull down his 9th rebound. Gillespie got fouled and made those two foul shots, and that was the ballgame. This team’s focus and calmness is remarkable.

9. This will be either Villanova’s 6th gold 7th trip to the Final 4, depending on how you look at it. Villanova previously reached Final 4s in 1939, 1971, 1985, 2009, 2016 and 2018, winning NCAA Championships in 1985, 2016 and 2018, losing in the national final in 1939 and 1971 and in the semifinals in 2009. But Villanova was later stripped of its 1971 run because Howard Porter had signed a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Condors of the ABA (who he never played for). Either way, Villanova has been to more Final 4s than almost anybody. North Carolina (20), UCLA (18), Kentucky (17), Duke (16), Kansas (15), Ohio State (10), Michigan State (10), Louisville (8) and Indiana (8) are the only schools that have reached more Final 4s than ‘Nova. This is Wright’s fourth Final 4, and only 12 coaches have been to more (Mike Krzyzewski, John Wooden, Dean Smith, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Denny Crum, Adolph Rupp, Jim Boeheim, Bob Knight, Guy Lewis, Lute Olson and Rick Pitino). Not bad company.

10. Villanova opens play in the Final 4 Saturday at the Superdome in New Orleans against the winner of the Midwest Region championship game Sunday afternoon between Kansas and Miami in Chicago. Villanova has never played a Tournament game in New Orleans. Villanova is 5-4 all-time vs. Kansas, most recently winning 56-55 in 2019. The Wildcats are 14-10 all-time vs. former Big East member Miami, most recently winning 92-69 in 2016. ‘Nova is 2-1 vs. Kansas in the Tournament, including wins in Louisville and San Antonio along the way to both the 2016 and 2018 titles, Villanova’s only Tourney win over Miami also came in 2016 in Louisville.

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