By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
#2 Villanova 64, #1 Kansas 59 – Box Score
There was a legion of naysayers who dismissed Villanova’s chances in this NCAA tournament, saying a team that relied so heavily on the jump shot would eventually slip up. Even after the Wildcats scorched the nets in their first three tournament games, the doubters (rightfully) said that degree of hot shooting couldn’t last. What they didn’t realize is that this Villanova group has other places it can turn, because Saturday night, the jump shots stopped falling, but the Wildcats will still keep dancing.
Against the #1 team in the nation, defense was the key for victory for Jay Wright’s squad. An aggressive, trapping defense forced Kansas into 16 turnovers, many of them coming in a 13-0 Villanova first half run, where the Jayhawks went nearly 7 minutes without scoring. In the first 20 minutes alone, Kansas committed 10 turnovers, allowing the Wildcats to head into the locker room up 7 points. All the defensive pressure severely flustered Jayhawks leading scorer Perry Ellis, who recorded zero points and four turnovers in the first half, and ended the game with just four points.
Redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges was at the center of all that defensive chaos, using his go-go-gadget arms to swipe a game-high 5 steals. That stat doesn’t even include his jumping on a loose ball knocked away by Ryan Arcidacono in the final minute to deny Kansas an opportunity at a game-tying three-point attempt. Creating turnovers, grabbing loose balls, battling the bigger Perry Ellis in the post for long stretches of the game, Bridges was the Wildcats’ MVP Saturday night.
As alluded to, it wasn’t the best night for the Wildcats from the offensive end. Villanova finished the game 4-18 from downtown, and both Josh Hart (6-17 shooting) and Kris Jenkins (3-10) struggled to find the groove. Fortunately, this Villanova squad has other places to turn aside from jacking up threes. Daniel Ochefu showed off some gorgeous post moves against Kansas big man Landen Lucas; Chef cooked up 10 points on 5-8 shooting and 8 rebounds. The Wildcats were also clutch down the stretch from the foul line, hitting 18-19 free throws on the game (the second straight game they shot 94% or better from the line).
The Jayhawks did make one push, going on a 9-0 run to regain the lead in the second half. Devonte Graham was at the center of that, as he was the only Kansas player able to find his shot on the evening. Graham knocked down 5 of his 9 three-point attempts for a game-high 17 points; the other Jayhawks combined to shoot 1-13 from behind the arc.
Showing great resolve however, Villanova answered a few minutes later with a 10-0 surge of their own. That run gave the Wildcats a 50-45 advantage; a lead they would maintain the rest of the way.
Beating the top team in the country on a night they shot just 4-18 from three. That’s something even the staunchest Villanova supporters might have questioned. But these Wildcats get after it on defense, have a ton of different players to throw at the opposition, and have more balance offensively that some people give them credit for.
If the Wildcats are still going to prevail on a poor shooting night, what exactly is going to stop them? We’ll find out next weekend. A rematch awaits with Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooner in the Final Four.