SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The ball went up and Kansas went down. It seemed just that quick on Saturday night in the Alamodome as Villanova shot out the lights, shot out the back-up lights, and then shot out the emergency lights just to emphasize their point.
This wasn’t a no-pressure November tune-up with few people watching and the score barely mattering. Anyone can be loose in that game. No, this was merely the national semifinal, the Wildcats’ 39th game of the season, with April crowding March, nearly 70,000 fans packing a football stadium and a coast-to-coast audience. Try performing under those circumstances. Villanova made it look easy.
“Making shots makes everything look good,” Jay Wright said.
The Wildcats tied the NCAA record for three-point field goals in a Final Four game in the first half. They made six of them on their way to a quick 18-point lead that forced Kansas coach Bill Self to burn two time outs and switch to a zone defense, which Self does only in the direst of situations. This was dire. His team was on the verge of being embarrassed on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“It was one of those nights. We made every shot to start the game,” Jay Wright said. “When you do that and they get down 22-4 against a decent free-throw shooting team, it’s tough to come back. We made every shot. It happens sometimes.”
The game settled down a little, but Kansas wasn’t capable of playing with Villanova on this night. If it was any consolation, and it wasn’t, Self knew that no other college team would have stayed with the Wildcats, either. Villanova won, 95-79, and was never seriously challenged. The offense came in waves, washing over the Jayhawks. They chased the ball but never caught up as it moved inside and then out, and around the perimeter to just the right set of hands.
“I have never seen a team shoot the ball like that in my life,” Self said.
Villanova advanced to Monday’s national championship game against the Michigan Wolverines with a chance to win the title for the second time in three years. The Wildcats will be facing a team that is built on defense and on preventing even high-voltage offenses from getting into a rhythm. It will be a classic matchup of styles, and Villanova has shown it can play ugly if necessary, but Saturday night was a reminder of just how beautifully they can play, too.
Eight players hit three-pointers for the Wildcats against the Jayhawks, which was a big part of Self’s problem. It wasn’t as if there was any one thing Kansas could do, or any one player Kansas could stop, that would blunt the Villanova attack. In the opening half, Jalen Brunson hit three long-range shots and four other players had two three-pointers.
Down 15 points at halftime, and tongue-lashed by their coach, the Jayhawks pressured out onto the perimeter more aggressively as the second half began, which was their only option. As soon as they did, however, Villanova recognized the gaps in the paint area and began to drive the lane. Eric Paschall scored twice on the inside to give the Wildcats a 20-point lead, their biggest of the game to that point, just four minutes into the second half. If that made Kansas step back, Paschall, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman followed up with three more three-pointers and very little was left to decide aside from the final score and how many Final Four records the Villanova offense would set.
“It’s our best offensive team,” Wright said. “We’ve had some good ones. This is definitely our best.”
Villanova finished with 18-three point field goals, the new NCAA Final Four record. The high for three-pointers in a game this season is 19, which the Wildcats did twice, once against St. Joseph’s in December and once against Creighton in February. They have gotten through March with the three-pointer and without it. They shot just 9 for 25 from distance in winning the Big East tournament against Providence, and survived a pug-ugly NCAA regional final against Texas Tech despite making just 4 of 24 three-point attempts.
But put them in against a team that doesn’t keep up with their ball movement, which Kansas did not, and Villanova is capable of making opponents look very bad. That includes the Big 12 champions, a No. 1 seed in the tournament, and a team that came in with a 31-7 record.
If the game had continued the way it started for the entire 40 minutes, Villanova would have put an embarrassing number on the Jayhawks. As it was, it was bad enough. The lead remained easily in double digits, usually drifting between 15 and 20 points as the Wildcats slowed things down to shorten the clock and Kansas made a series of mini-runs, all of which were answered.
All in all, very impressive, but there are no certainties when it comes to national championship games. Michigan is good at what it does. But when Villanova is able to get its offense going as it did on Saturday night, good isn’t good enough.