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No. 18 Villanova holds off No. 1 Kansas, 56-55

A nice Christmas gift for the ‘Cats, heading into the holidays.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

A steal-and-score by Collin Gillespie, followed by a clutch three by Jermaine Samuels, then a missed front end of an one-and-one, and a huge defensive stand by Saddiq Bey — moments that all packaged themselves into one great Christmas gift for the Villanova Wildcats heading into the holidays, an upset victory over top-ranked Kansas.

Villanova hung on for a one-point victory in front of a soldout Wells Fargo Center crowd, taking down the No. 1-ranked Kansas Jayhawks, 56-55.

“The guys that played in this program, when they’re older, they know how to make plays,” Wright said of his veterans, particularly Gillespie and Samuels. “They know what it takes. Both of these guys have been in a lot of big games. You see some of the young guys at the end struggle a little bit. That’s why we try to keep experienced players on and why these two are so important to this team.”

Things looked like they were slipping out of Villanova’s favor, as an and-one by Kansas’ Christian Braun made it a four-point game with just under two minutes to go. After an empty-handed possession by the ‘Cats, Gillespie was able to force a steal and went the other way for a layup to trim the deficit down.

The Wildcats were able to get a defensive stop, and Samuels was able to drain a three-pointer near the top of the arc for the lead.

“We were running the play, for me and Collin,” Samuels said of the series that led to his go-ahead shot. “I saw Collin starting to go. I saw him attacking, and Dotson sink in a little bit. I knew it was a good time for catch-and-shoot. Like coach said, if they’re going to give us threes, you have to take while you can. I just stepped into it, and shot it unconsciously.”

With just under 20 seconds remaining, the Wildcats needed to make more stops.

An ill-advised foul gave Kansas the opportunity to pull ahead, but Devon Dotson bricked the front end of the one-and-one and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl corralled the loose ball.

A few fouls shy of the bonus, Kansas continued to foul the ‘Cats. After three successful inbounds, ‘Nova needed to send the ball in one more time, but a bad pass resulted in a turnover.

“Obviously not great, we kind of ran out of plays,” Wildcat head coach Jay Wright said, with a grin. “Honestly, we ran out of plays. We have three different baseline press offenses. We ran all three and got it in. On the fourth time, we went back to the first one, and they were on it. Well-scouted, great coach. We didn’t have a time out, so all we can do is throw it in. That’s our last option, to throw it over the top, which isn’t a great one. You just have to credit them. I don’t think we’ve ever been in that situation in all of my years.”

When asked if he will add a fourth play for the future, he joked, “We still have to learn those three, a little better.”

The Wildcats were able to stand tall once again, as Dotson’s last-second shot at the buzzer bounced harmlessly off the rim and onto the floor. The Wells Fargo Center erupted in euphoria.

It was a hard-fought, back-and-forth game that saw the ‘Cats on top, avenging last season’s loss to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse.

“Great college basketball game,” Wright said. “They deserve so much credit. To execute down the stretch like they did, that’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country. Great respect for them. They lost a starter, a great starter. We were fortunate, sometimes we played well and have not been fortunate. We were fortunate, and gutted it out down the stretch. Great plays by Collin and Saddiq down the stretch.”

Samuels led the ‘Cats with 15 points and five rebounds. Gillespie finished with 12 points. Robinson-Earl added nine points and nine boards. As a team, Villanova shot 22-of-63 overall (34.9 percent) and 10-for-41 (24.4 percent) from long range.

For Kansas, Dotson paced the Jayhawks with 15 points and seven boards. Udoka Azubuike added a double-double, with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Ochai Agbaji chipped in 11 points.

With the victory, Villanova improves to 9-2 overall. The next time ‘Nova hits the floor, it will begin conference play against the Xavier Musketeers, at home, on Dec. 30. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET.