At first, it appeared like the Villanova Wildcats had the tools to pull off the upset. They kept the high-powered Baylor Bears at bay, controlled the tempo, and made the top three-point shooting team in the country struggle from the perimeter.
After a back-and-forth start, Baylor went on a run, before Villanova answered with a 13-0 run that helped it build a seven-point lead at half. The ‘Cats went toe-to-toe with the top-seeded Bears, before Baylor stormed back into the game. Once it took the lead, it hardly looked back and held on to beat Villanova, 62-51, in Saturday’s Sweet 16 showdown.
“They’re just a really good team,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said of Baylor. “Definitely a team that’s capable of winning a national championship, and they got a lot of great teams to play, but they’re definitely capable of winning it.
“I’m really proud of our guys and love coaching this team. We were good enough to beat them, (Baylor) just played better down the stretch. I think down the stretch, their defense just got to us and wore us down, and it made the difference in this game.”
Baylor turned the tide with a 14-2 run, catching up to ‘Nova to tie it up, then ultimately take the lead.
While the Wildcats had dictated the pace all throughout the first half, the Bears were starting to impose themselves during that five-minute long burst. Villanova struggled with turnovers, at one point coughing the ball up on five straight possessions to fuel the game-changing Baylor run.
Brandon Slater went down with an ankle injury and missed a big chunk of the second half, and the already thin Wildcats were trying to manage.
“He was playing great,” Wright said of Slater. “We had a tough time. Certain guys were struggling with matchups on their quick guards, and he was doing a great job. Besides us turning the ball over, that’s when it turned too, when he went out.”
Although Baylor never found a rhythm from the three-point line, its defensive effort overwhelmed Villanova.
The Wildcats shot just 9-of-24 overall in the second half, and they missed all seven of their three-point attempts.
Villanova turned the ball over 16 times for the entire game, and Baylor capitalized with 22 points off turnovers.
“I thought we did a really good job defensively,” Wright said. “Our half court offense, it wasn’t that bad, it was just the turnovers. The turnovers killed us. A team like that, we gave them too many easy baskets on that run, and then we came down with empty possessions. I think that was the difference in the game.”
Jermaine Samuels had a team-high 16 points, with four rebounds. Justin Moore had 15 points, five boards, and three assists. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl finished with eight points, 12 boards, one steal, and a block.
For Baylor, Adam Flagler came off the bench and led the Bears with 16 points. Davion Mitchell finished with 14 points and a pair of assists.
Villanova finishes with an 18-7 record.
While seniors have some major decisions to make, regarding whether or not to take their extra year of eligibility, Jermaine Samuels doesn’t plan on deciding any time soon.
However, he had some thoughts on his time at Villanova.
“I thought I came in knowing that I knew basketball and everything about it, and I realized I didn’t right away,” Samuels said. “Coach Wright was patient with me every step of the way. I had guys that are older than me that showed me the way, kept in contact, and kept encouraging me. My teammates gave me confidence.
“It wasn’t easy at all. It wasn’t a smooth ride. I could’ve gave up plenty of times, but the resiliency and this culture alone kept me going. The guys in this locker room kept me going. There’s so much I could say, honestly, but I’m just grateful to have this jersey on my back.”