The madness of March isn’t limited to just the lower seeds pulling off big upsets, but based on the history of the NCAA Tournament, the second-seeded Villanova Wildcats were underdogs entering their matchup with the fifth-seeded Houston Cougars.
Vegas tipped the scale in Houston’s favor, and plenty of fans dressed in red made the three-hour trip to San Antonio to basically make it a home game for the Cougars.
No second-seeded team had never beaten a No. 5 seed in the history of the tournament, but the ‘Cats did what the other four teams before them couldn’t. Villanova jumped out in front, then won in wire-to-wire fashion, 50-44, holding off the Cougars to punch their ticket to New Orleans for the Final Four.
“I was proud of our guys, having experienced guys play in that environment like a true road game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “(Houston) making a run, a really good team that you know can get on runs, but for them to keep their composure, get stops, hit big shots, having veteran players is the key to that. Just guys who have been in that moment before.”
The win gives Villanova its third Final Four berth in the last six NCAA Tournaments. It is the fourth Final Four of the Jay Wright era.
“It’s great to be going back to the Final Four,” Wright said. “It never gets old. It’s a dream for every coach and player in college basketball. We’re going to enjoy this tonight and tomorrow, rest up, and then we’re going to get to work. We get to keep playing, which is what we enjoy the most.”
Unfortunately, the celebrations were hampered by concern for Justin Moore, who went down with an injury in the final minute of play when he tried to drive inside. The senior guard was helped up and had to be assisted off the court.
According to Wright, Moore is scheduled to get a MRI when the team returns to Pennsylvania, but it’s “probably not good for Justin.”
After the game, Collin Gillespie and other teammates ran up to him in support.
“Just tried to cheer him up, I’ve been in that position before,” Gillespie said. “I know what it feels like. We don’t know what the injury is yet, he still has to get checked, but I don’t ever want to see him by himself. He’s done so much for this team, always guards the best player. He’s one of our best offensive players. A lot of our guys ran over to him, because we’re not in the position we are without him.”
Although the ‘Cats led the whole way, it didn’t come easy. They kept a high-powered Cougars team at bay, clamping down on them for most of the game.
Houston had a few scoring spurts here and there, but couldn’t generate enough momentum to overtake Villanova.
The Wildcats limited the Cougars to just 17-of-57 shooting for the entire game (29.8%) and just a 1-of-20 three-point shooting performance (5.0%).
“It’s just us being connected defensively,” Villanova guard Caleb Daniels said. “We’re not going to be perfect, but we’re together, and I think that’s the beautiful part about our program. Obviously, it wasn’t perfect, we missed some shots, messed up some coverages, but we stepped up.”
Villanova didn’t shoot that much better, shooting a slightly worse 15-of-52 (28.8%) overall, but 5-of-21 (23.8%) from beyond the arc.
However, the ‘Cats made the shots when it mattered and mostly buckled down defensively.
The Wildcats built a 27-20 lead at the break. They briefly pushed their lead into double figures early in the second half, but then Houston started to rumble back.
The ‘Cats would respond with a few baskets to retain separation, but Houston never went away quietly.
The Cougars went on a late 11-2 run to trim the deficit down to its closest margin of the game, a 42-40 edge after a driving layup by Taze Moore, with 5:25 remaining.
Collin Gillespie buried a shot to halt Houston’s momentum, and Villanova went back to standing tall defensively. It remained a two-possession game the rest of the way, and the ‘Cats held on.
Jermaine Samuels led the ‘Cats with 16 points and 10 boards on 6-of-10 shooting. Daniels had 12 points and six boards. Moore had eight points. Gillespie and Dixon had six points each.
For Houston, Moore paced the Cougars with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Jamal Shead had nine points.
Samuels was named the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player. He, alongside Gillespie, Daniels and Moore were named to the all-South Region tournament team. Houston’s Shead was the only non-Villanova player to also receive that honor.
“Extremely appreciative,” said Samuels, reflecting on his first NCAA Tournament run with the 2018 championship team as a reserve, and comparing it to now. “Back then, it was just amazing to watch those guys on the sidelines. It was like front row tickets to some of the best Villanova basketball players ever. You take all the experiences and you try to emulate them and be them.”
Villanova improves to 30-7 overall. It will face the winner of No. 1 Kansas and No. 10 Miami, which will be determined on Sunday afternoon, in the Final Four at New Orleans next Saturday.