The road ends in New Orleans for the Villanova Wildcats, albeit much shorter than they would have liked.
The undermanned Wildcats found themselves in an early hole, but despite the obstacles the ‘Cats faced before and after tipoff, they persisted and never went away quietly. However, the Kansas Jayhawks ultimately pulled away in the closing minutes for the wire-to-wire 81-65 victory.
“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Right to start the game, you go down 10-0, against a team that good, you’re in trouble. You’ve got to try and fight back, and believe you can. We believed we could, but if you look back on it, going down 10-0 and letting (Ochai Agbaji) get it going at the start — arguably one of the best shooters in the country — that was not the way we planned it.”
It was a reversal of sorts. In 2018, Villanova pounced all over Kansas and was on fire from long range. This time, the Jayhawks shot at a blistering rate and took advantage of early turnovers to build a quick double-digit lead in the opening minutes of play.
“We came out ready to play and it was kind of — a little bit — of a reversal from ‘18,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Not near to the extent, but a reversal in that we really couldn’t do much wrong there early. We got a few breaks and built a lead, and you knew Villanova was going to go on a run, but I thought we played great.”
The Wildcats started to get on the board and settle in, but the inside-outside combination of David McCormack, Ochai Agbaji and other shooters made it difficult.
Kansas doubled up the ‘Cats at one point, building a 38-19 lead with 4:52 remaining, but then Villanova started to rally and get some stops, using a 10-0 run to trim it down to single digits for a moment in the closing minutes of the first half.
Mitch Lightfoot got a basket to drop to thwart the Wildcats’ momentum and help Kansas take a 40-29 lead at halftime.
After the break, the Wildcats continued to battle. They started to get some stops defensively, using a combination of zone and man-to-man defense and offensively, they strung together some baskets to trim the deficit to as low as six after a Jermaine Samuels three-point play with 6:10 remaining.
Unfortunately, that would be the closest the ‘Cats would get to catching the Jayhawks.
“Slater had one go in and out that could have cut it to four or five, so we were lucky there, but that’s what good players do,” Self said. “They make plays when you’re playing well to extend the momentum, and when you’re not playing as well — you got to cut their momentum and these guys made enough plays where they actually did that.”
Kansas stretched the lead back into double digits, and Villanova’s rally came to a screeching halt when Christian Braun drained a last-second heave before the shot clock expired. He came back with another three-point a minute later.
The Wildcats tried to salvage the game, but the Jayhawks comfortably held on.
“We were ready and we were good enough to win that game, they did a lot of things that made them win the game,” said Wright, regarding how much Justin Moore’s absence affected the ‘Cats. “I know I have to address Justin not being here, but maybe at the start of the game, when a team gets going at the perimeter, we usually go smaller and we usually bring Caleb off the bench, so things like that, but you give them credit for recognizing that and we didn’t have the ability to do that.
“They didn’t just start going inside every time, they went out on the perimeter early, then they went to McCormack, and you give them credit.”
Collin Gillespie led the ‘Cats with 17 points. Brandon Slater had 16 points and eight rebounds. Caleb Daniels finished with 13 points and five boards.
For Kansas, McCormack led the way with 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting, with nine boards. Agbaji had 21 points and shot 6-of-7 from beyond the arc. Jalen Wilson finished with a 11-point, 12-rebound double-double, and Braun chipped in 10 points.
As a team, Kansas shot 53.7% overall and 13-of-24 (54.2%) from beyond the arc for the entire game.
The Wildcats finish the season with a 30-8 record. For Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, this is their final game with Villanova.
“It’s really a family, and I loved every second of it,” Gillespie said. “I have brothers that’ll last me a lifetime now, and coaches that I’ll be friends with for life. I’m just super grateful to be a part of this. It’s bigger than me, and it’s just a really special place.”