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Villanova returns to Sweet 16 with 71-61 win over Ohio State

For the second straight year and the fourth time out of the last six NCAA Tournaments, the ‘Cats dance on to the Sweet 16.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Ohio State vs Villanova Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The mental component of March Madness is hardly understated. In college basketball’s biggest tournament, some teams may falter, but even as Ohio State attempted a late-game comeback, the ‘Cats were ready.

“They had a stretch where they were hitting shot after shot, and we just said ‘Attitude,’” Villanova guard Collin Gillespie said. “We stuck together, came together and just told each other let’s get this next stop and try to make the next play.”

Ohio State trimmed the double-digit deficit down to as low as two points, but also made it a one-possession game on several occasions. The Wildcats buckled down and never gave up the lead, fending off the Buckeyes to win, 71-61, on Sunday afternoon to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year and the fourth time out of the last six NCAA Tournaments.

“(E.J.) Liddell is a beast and (Malaki) Branham was a handful,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I’m proud of these guys, I’m proud of their leadership. Collin and Jermaine, the way they’ve been great leaders all season for this team, and their whole careers. Eric Dixon — he’s got guts. Big time shot.”

With the momentum mounting behind the Buckeyes midway through the second half, Dixon connected on a crucial open three off a pass from Gillespie, giving the ‘Cats a 67-59 with 1:58 left in the game.

The shot helped the ‘Cats pull away and hang on, as they got stops down the stretch and made the necessary free throws.

“I shot thousands of threes this year in practice and by myself in the gym, so my teammates expect me to make the shot when I shoot it, and I just raised up and shot it,” Dixon said.

Villanova opened the game on a 17-7 run, which eventually built up into a 39-28 lead at halftime, behind solid shooting complemented with a good defensive effort.

Branham and Liddell started to get going in the second half for the Buckeyes, as they tried to chip away at Villanova’s lead.

The Wildcats started to cool off on the court, and Ohio State used a 10-2 run to make it a single-digit game.

Branham hit back to back shots to top off the scoring spurt and make it 57-53, with 7:51 remaining. Justin Moore responded with a three to give Villanova a bit of breathing room, but Ohio State was relentless.

“If you haven’t done it, it’s hard, you can panic, but all these guys have been there,” Wright said of handling high-pressure games and moments of March. “I think the Big East Tournament provides that for them. Our game at UCLA or Baylor, against Purdue, those games provide that for you and it’s really valuable.”

Villanova held off Ohio State to punch its ticket to the Sweet 16 once again.

Gillespie finished with 20 points, four assists, one steal and one turnover. Jermaine Samuels had 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, eight rebounds and two steals. Eric Dixon had 13 points and eight rebounds. Caleb Daniels had 11 points and eight rebounds.

For Ohio State, Branham had 23 points, including 15 points in the second half, and four assists, with four turnovers. Liddell had 17 points, six rebounds, three steals and two blocks.

The Wildcats improve to 28-7 overall and will play 11th-seeded Michigan in next week’s Sweet 16. The winner of the game would face either Houston, Alabama or TCU in the Elite Eight.

For Gillespie, Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, it’s a bit of a full-circle moment. They’ll return to San Antonio, where they faced Michigan as a freshmen in the 2018 National Championship game.

“I didn’t even think about that,” Gillespie said of facing Michigan again. “We’re just happy to be moving on.”

“Same as Collin, I didn’t think about it either,” Samuels added. “That team is very battle-tested and they’ll be ready to go.”