LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Villanova players danced and celebrated after pulling off what many thought would be the NCAA Tournament’s most difficult task.
Beating Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed, required taking the Jayhawks out of their comfort zone while seizing the opportunities that resulted. The Wildcats did both effectively even though it wasn’t always pretty, and their reward is a berth in the Final Four.
Kris Jenkins made two free throws with 13.3 seconds remaining, Jalen Brunson added two more with 3.5 seconds left and second-seeded Villanova upset the top-seeded Jayhawks 64-59 on Saturday night in the South Region final. The Wildcats will play Oklahoma next weekend in Houston.
Mikal Bridges and Josh Hart each made big steals in the final minute to help the Wildcats (33-5) pull off the upset and end the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak. The Wildcats are back in the Final Four for the first time since 2009, and they can credit balanced scoring and ferocious defence.
Jenkins, Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono each scored 13 points for the Wildcats. They used a 10-0 run to take a 50-45 lead and get key baskets and plays down the stretch in beating the Jayhawks (33-5).
"Every guy on this team is willing to do whatever it takes to win, man," said Jenkins, who made all six free throws to offset 3-for-10 shooting. "Everybody on this team sacrifices. But we’re not satisfied. We’re looking forward to our next game in Houston. This definitely is a special feeling, but like I said before, we’re not satisfied."
Devonte’ Graham had 17 points, and Frank Mason III and Wayne Selden Jr. added 16 each for Kansas, which got just four points from leading scorer Perry Ellis. The Jayhawks shot 46 per cent from the field and even won the rebounding battle 32-28, but played from behind most of the night.
Even when it was ahead, Kansas never seemed in control and ended up making desperation plays that didn’t work.
Graham shot 5 of 9 from long range, but fouled out late, and everyone else was a combined 1 for 13 from behind the arc. Kansas also committed 16 turnovers, including several in the final minutes when it was within a possession of tying or leading.
"I think the basket shrunk a little bit for us, and certainly, they probably got some confidence the way they were defending us," Kansas coach Bill Self said about Villanova. "But it came down them making free throws and it came down to a couple of loose balls, and that was the difference in the outcome."
Villanova got 10 points from Daniel Ochefu, including a big jumper with 6:14 left, just one of many big plays the Wildcats made to preserve the lead after finally wresting it from Kansas.
It wasn’t easy. Mason scored five points and the Jayhawks cut it to 60-59 with 15 seconds left. But Arcidiacono, who turned 22, preceded that with four free throws before Jenkins and Brunson followed with two more. The Wildcats made 18 of 19 at the line and all eight in the final 33 seconds.
The Wildcats were also given the ball with 34 seconds left when officials determined that Graham undercut Hart on a scramble after Graham’s turnover. Graham fouled out at that point, and Mason’s foul led to the first of Arcidiacono’s foul shots.
Darryl Reynolds had two free throws and Bridges had a key tip-in for the Wildcats as well in a game in which they shot 40 per cent from the field.
Villanova gets to pursue its second national title in its fifth Final Four berth, though the NCAA vacated its 1971 appearance because star Howard Porter had signed a pro contract while still in college. The Wildcats will face Oklahoma next Saturday in Houston.
More importantly, the Wildcats did what no team had been able to over two months and really wasn’t expected to in knocking out the tournament favourite. But both teams had been ranked No. 1 this season and have been winning even bigger in the tournament.
This Elite Eight matchup seemed inevitable as a result, with Villanova coach Jay Wright comparing it to a heavyweight bout in Friday. The Wildcats ended up cutting off the court with a zone defence and mixing in timely offence.
Villanova’s 40-per cent shooting including 4-of-18 from long range didn’t matter as the Wildcats had the victory that moves them into April.
"We wanted to make it a street fight, make it an ugly game," said Arcidiacono, who shot 6 of 7 from the line to seal the win on his 22nd birthday. "I think we did that."
Jenkins was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. Joining him on the team were teammates Hart, Ochefu and Arcidiacono and Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham.
Turning 22 had a sweet ending for Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono, whose free throws sealed the Wildcats’ victory. Teammates and fans even serenaded him by singing "Happy Birthday" during the on-court celebration.
"This is the first time I’ve played on my birthday," Arcidiacono said. "Best one ever, for sure."
Villanova: The Wildcats scored 13 points off 16 turnovers. … The win tied a school record for season victories set last season.
Kansas: The Jayhawks’ 16 turnovers were four above their season average. … Landen Lucas had 12 rebounds and six points.
Villanova: Faces Oklahoma in Final Four in Houston next Saturday.