BOSTON – Unlike its first three games of the 2018 NCAA tournament, Villanova couldn’t get shots to fall Sunday in the second half of its East Region championship game against Texas Tech.
In one span of nearly 12 minutes, the Wildcats missed 17 of 20 attempts from the floor, scored just nine points, and watched a 15-point lead shrink to five as the Red Raiders grew more and more energetic and confident through their defense. A chance at a second Final Four appearance in three years appeared to be slipping away.
But the Cats turned it up a notch defensively in the last four minutes, got some key buckets and made 12 consecutive free throws down the stretch to gain a 71-59 Elite Eight victory before a crowd of 19,169 at TD Garden and punch their ticket to San Antonio.
Villanova (34-4), the top seed in the East Region and the 2016 national champion, will play Kansas, an 85-81 winner over Duke, in a national semifinal on Saturday.
Coach Jay Wright called the game “tough and ugly” and it was every bit that. The Wildcats were held to a season-low 33.3 percent shooting. After knocking down a record 44 three-point baskets in their first three tournament wins, they made just four Sunday, their second-lowest total and percentage (16.7) of the season.
“They really did a good job of sticking to the game plan, playing team defense,” said Jalen Brunson, who scored 15 points and was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player. “But for us, if shots aren’t falling, we try to make sure that’s not affecting us, that we’re getting stops on the defensive end, and still having confidence that we can take shots.
“Everyone has confidence in one another. I specifically remember (when) I was missing a lot of shots and my teammates looking me in the eye in the huddle and saying, ‘Jalen, keep shooting the ball, keep shooting the ball, don’t worry about it.’ That’s just the confidence they have in me and we have in each other.”
The Wildcats had plenty in other areas. They held a 51-33 rebounding advantage and pulled down a season-high 20 offensive boards. They limited the Red Raiders (27-10) to 33.3 percent shooting.
Leading, 36-23, at the half, Villanova upped the margin to 15 three different times, the last at 43-28 with 17 minutes, 23 seconds remaining. Then the bricks started to fall and the Red Raiders, who weren’t exactly burning up the nets, began to creep closer and closer.
A three-pointer by Brandone Francis with 6:04 to play closed the gap to 52-47. Phil Booth hit a fast-break layup and Donte DiVincenzo’s dunked a Mikal Bridges miss, but Tech had a ready answer each time, and it was 56-51 with 4 minutes left.
“We said to the guys, ‘Hey, don’t worry about our offense, let’s keep grinding it out defensively,’” Wright said. “We were getting decent shots. We were just making some poor decisions. I just wanted them to keep doing what they were doing. I thought it would pay off eventually.”
It did. The Cats knuckled down on defense, and a 7-2 run highlighted by Brunson’s tough turnaround jumper got the margin back to 10 with 1:15 to play. They put the game away at the free-throw line.
Wright credited his team’s leadership – Brunson, Bridges and Phil Booth – with guiding the team through Sunday’s constant adversity.
“It’s the character of these guys,” he said. “They don’t judge themselves by whether their shots are going in or whether they look pretty. It’s how they play for each other.”
Bridges, DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall added 12 points each. Paschall pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds, joining Brunson and Omari Spellman on the all-tournament team. It all helped the Wildcats make it 2-for-2 in East Region championship games in Boston and three Final Fours in the last 10 years.
Brunson, who with Bridges and Booth played in the 2016 championship run, said there’s more work to do.
“We’re not done,” he said. “We’re not satisfied. We’ve got to keep getting better.”