Undersized, perhaps, but nothing that the Villanova Wildcats are unfamiliar with.
The No. 2-seeded Wildcats are dancing past the upset-minded 11th-seeded Michigan Wolverines to a place where the program is definitely no stranger: the Elite Eight.
The Wildcats held off the Wolverines for a 63-55 win on Thursday night to reach their 15th Elite Eight appearance in program history.
It is also the fifth Elite Eight for Villanova coach Jay Wright, which ties him with former mentor Rollie Massimino.
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While this meeting in San Antonio wasn’t as comfortable as the 2018 National Championship Game, it still presented the sweet feeling of victory in advancing one round further.
The ‘Cats had to play bigger than they were and stay strong defensively.
“We just tried to pressure the ball a little bit more, not let it get into the paint for postups as easy, and just being tough and physical when they’re scoring,” Villanova guard Justin Moore said. “We know they like to drive and get to the paint, just had to make them take tough shots.”
Many questions arose entering Thursday night’s contest about how Villanova would deal with 7-foot-1 center Hunter Dickinson and the overall size of the Wolverines. Jermaine Samuels provided the answer, with help from Eric Dixon and others.
“I just wanted to stay mobile, and I understand that my team is right behind me,” Samuels said. “(Hunter Dickinson) is a phenomenal player, so he’s gonna get great looks, but knowing that I have teammates behind me gave me all the confidence.”
Dickinson paced Michigan with a 15-point, 15-rebound double-double, but never looked comfortable throughout the night and shot just 6-of-16 on the floor.
“I was really proud of his effort on the defensive end,” Wright said of Samuels. “We ask a lot of him on the defensive end, guarding Dickinson a lot. Then, on the offensive end, we were trying to move Dickinson around, which sounds good, unless you’re the guy that’s got to do it. You’re running around, setting screens, cutting, to make him follow you. He never wanted to come out.
“Eric did it some parts of the night, but it was mostly Jermaine and it was a good effort. I know he’s exhausted.”
It was a closely contested match to start. Just when ‘Nova appeared to settle and light a spark, the Wolverines were able to battle back to keep within reach.
Villanova had an 18-11 lead with 10:30 to go in the first half, but then went on a long shooting drought, where it didn’t hit a shot for another seven minutes. Michigan briefly took the lead, until the ‘Cats closed out the half and held a narrow 31-28 edge at the break.
Both teams had some lulls offensively, until Caleb Daniels started to get going early in the second half.
After a scoreless opening half, he started to hit a few shots and make key defensive plays.
An and-one by Daniels gave the ‘Cats a 50-41 lead, with 7:52 left in the game. The nine-point margin was the largest of the game.
“Just knowing that my brothers are going to find me on the perimeter, just constantly being on attack for 40 minutes, but it pretty much started defensively, stepping up for each other,” Daniels said. “That’s pretty much what got me going in the second half.”
Although the ‘Cats never extended into double figures, they tightened up defensively and limited the Wolverines to just three made shots in the final six minutes of play.
After a few inbounding scares, Samuels made the necessary free throws to ice the game.
At one point Collin Gillespie got twisted and tangled up, and seemingly re-injured his left knee. According to Wright, Gillespie says ‘he’s okay,’ but the team is concerned due to it being the same knee that was injured at the end of last season. It is too early to tell if it’s anything drastic, although he remained in the game and walked and ran okay.
Samuels led the way with 22 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Moore chipped in 15 points. Gillespie added 12 points and six boards. Daniels finished with eight points and nine rebounds. Dixon added six points and seven boards.
Aside from Dickinson, Eli Brooks had 14 points and five boards. He didn’t shoot well overall, just 5-of-14, but was 3-for-5 from deep. DeVante Jones and Moussa Diabate each had seven points.
Villanova improves to 29-7 overall. It will play the winner of the No. 1 Arizona/No. 5 Houston game on Saturday in the Elite Eight.