SAN ANTONIO — Nobody in college basketball has been better at closing time than Villanova over the last decade, with two national titles to show for it.
Though the players are different these days, the result was familiar Saturday in the South Regional final.
Villanova earned coach Jay Wright’s fourth trip to the Final Four with a 50-44 victory over Houston, withstanding the Cougars’ ultra-physical style and their massive crowd advantage to earn a trip to New Orleans next week.
“It feels great,” Wright said. “It never gets old. It’s the dream of every player and coach in college basketball. It’s the ultimate. We’re going to enjoy this tonight and tomorrow and rest and get to work. But we get to keep playing.”
The Wildcats, who were seeded No. 2 in the region, won despite shooting just 29 percent from the field and making 5-of-21 from the 3-point line. But they were able to lead start-to-finish, then fend off a late Cougars push, because they made all 15 foul shots, turned the ball over just 10 times and held their own on the boards against a team that has made rebounding its specialty all season.
Leading by just four points late, Villanova senior Jermaine Samuels (16 points, 10 rebounds) found his way to the rim for a layup with 1:06 remaining — one of many massive plays by the Wildcats down the stretch when Houston needed a stop to give itself a chance.
Though Houston wasn’t done yet — it had the ball down 48-44 with 35 seconds left after Villanova guard Justin Moore appeared to suffer a serious right leg injury as he tried to get by a defender and turned it over — Taze Moore’s running layup spun off the rim and eventually into the safe hands of point guard Collin Gillespie, who knocked down two free throws to all but clinch the victory.
It was one of several huge moments down the stretch for Gillespie, who shot just 1-of-6 from the field against terrific defense by Moore while perhaps battling a left knee that he tweaked on Thursday against Michigan.
But Gillespie’s cool was valuable for Villanova in a difficult game and environment where nearly all the fans in the building were rooting for Houston, whose campus is just a few hours away. Though it was his only field goal, Gillespie arguably scored the biggest basket of the game with 5:20 remaining after Villanova’s 11-point lead had been reduced to 42-40. After a timeout by Wright, Gillespie drained a 17-foot jumper with a hand in his face—one of many moments where Villanova made a play to blunt Houston’s momentum.
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“They did a really good job of pressing the ball and blitz ball screens, and whenever we got in the post they blitzed a bit as well and definitely took away some things we’re used to getting,” Gillespie said. “But I was trying to make the right play more times than not and was giving the ball up and letting someone else make the decision.”
Villanova’s ability to withstand every push by Houston was only possible because it was able to stand tall in a game that was every bit as rough-and-tumble as you would have expected watching these teams through the tournament. Houston, of course, was determined to make it as physical as the officials would allow — and they allowed a lot of bumping and grabbing that would make most teams in the country uncomfortable.
But the Wildcats not only dealt with it, they landed the first punch on Houston for a 9-2 lead and ultimately never gave it up despite finding no rhythm offensively. And though Houston eventually started to get some traction on the offensive glass in the second half, the Cougars were limited to 14 second-chance points.
“I felt like it was playing against our own selves,” Villanova guard Caleb Daniels said. “It was a literal street fight. We’re not going to be perfect defensively but we’re together, and that’s the beautiful part of our program. We stepped up for one another defending and rebounding hard for 40 minutes.”
Houston, of course, was left to lament a tragically poor shooting performance, making just 1-of-20 from the 3-point line and 30 percent overall. Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said the game was close enough that he felt at some point a big shot would go down, but it never happened.
“Our kids guarded. Man, did we guard,” Sampson said. “Our defense was spot-on. Everyone in their lineup can make a basket, and we held them to 50 points, but we had a lot of opportunities. They didn’t go in. That happens. I’m disappointed we lost. We felt like this is a game we could win.”
Villanova’s celebration was more subdued than normal because of the injury to Moore, who was on crutches and went immediately to the locker room after the final buzzer rather than staying on the floor for the trophy ceremony. Wright said Moore would get an MRI when the team returned to Philadelphia but acknowledged that it did not look promising.
“I’ve been in that position before and know what it feels like,” said Gillespie, who suffered a serious knee injury right before the 2021 Big East tournament. “He’s done so much for this team, always guards the best player and is one of our best offensive players and will do anything for any of our guys. A lot of our guys ran right over to him because we’re not in the position we are without him, and we just wanted to go over to him and just appreciate what he does for us, and to let him know we have his back.”
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken