2018-04-01 10:59:05
Villanova Rolls Over Kansas to Reach Its Second N.C.A.A. Final in Three Seasons

10:59, April 01 53 0

SAN ANTONIO — After the last time Villanova lost, against Creighton in Omaha 37 days ago, the team held a meeting back on campus. Coach Jay Wright and the captains, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth, opened the discussion, but eventually everyone was chiming in. The focus was simple: Play better defense.

In the next practice, the team took five or six shots, total. Each drill demanded physicality, communication, rebounding. Practice ran for about three hours. Almost every practice after that one, for the next five weeks, lasted nearly as long, with practically every drill designed around defending.

This all might sound a bit strange, considering that Villanova turned in one of the most impressive offensive performances in the history of the semifinals of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament on Saturday night. Kansas was there, too, although one could be forgiven for not noticing. Too many shots were going in for the Wildcats, who won easily, 95-79, at the Alamodome.

They broke the Final Four record for 3-pointers made with 18, five more than the old mark, as seven players hit at least one shot from beyond the arc. They also tied the record for most 3-point attempts with 40; Villanova tried just 25 shots from 2-point range.

The Wildcats were always confident in their ability to generate offense; they led the nation in scoring with 86.6 points per game. But they realized that night in Omaha that they could never be in position to seek their second national title in three season as a one-dimensional team.

Now they will face third-seeded Michigan in the final on Monday night.

“Every season has a defining moment,” the Villanova assistant coach Ashley Howard said last week. “I think that Creighton game could have been that for us.”

On Saturday, Villanova jumped out to a 22-4 lead in the opening seven minutes. The Wildcats entered the game seven 3-pointers short of breaking an N.C.A.A. Division I record for the most in a single season. They set it with 10 minutes left in the first half.

“That was just one of those games,” Wright said. “Man, we made every shot to start the game.”

Villanova did not attempt a free throw until 8 minutes 48 seconds remained in the game.

Eric Paschall went 10 of 11 from the field for 24 points, while Omari Spellman added 15 points and 13 rebounds, and Brunson scored 18.

“They got anything they wanted early,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said.

Obscured a bit in the downpour of 3s was the fact that Villanova also forced 12 turnovers, took charges, blocked five shots and shook Kansas out of its game. Making shots bred confidence, which seeped into the defense, vitalizing both units on a feedback loop.

“It gave us so much confidence,” guard Donte DiVincenzo said. “We know we are knocking down shots, and when that happens, that energy just builds.”

But DiVincenzo added, “We pride ourselves on our ability to win when we’re not making shots.”

The Wildcats held the Jayhawks to 33 percent 3-point shooting and a season-low eight assists.

“It gets to 22-4 and it’s like, oh my gosh,” Self said. “We’re seven minutes in, and we’re going to have to play just about perfect to get back.”

This was a battle between two No. 1 seeds — a surprisingly conventional showdown after a bracket full of upsets, including a No. 16 seed, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, beating a No. 1 seed, Virginia, for the first time in the men’s tournament.

But the Jayhawks (31-8) and the Wildcats survived the gantlet to reach the Final Four on the strength of their senior leadership and guard play.

Villanova, which beat North Carolina in the 2016 title game, rose to No. 1 in the nation in early December this season, but Wright sensed some complacency settling in. His Wildcats were undersized, and vulnerable to an off shooting night. And as Wright kept harping on defense, the players took weeks to accept that changes needed to be made.

“It was kind of hard because we were winning,” Bridges said. “But once we took some losses, we realized.”

Wright said this team was the best offensive one he had coached at Villanona. “And our challenge,” he added, “has been that we were so good offensively earlier in the year that we got lazy defensively.”

It was unlikely, the freshman forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree said, that the team would have reached another national title game without that meeting in February. It was the wakeup call the Wildcats needed.

Consider them wide awake now. And looking awfully multidimensional.