By Zachary Powell | @ZMPowell30
Sports Capital Journalism Program
NEW ORLEANS – The Kansas Jayhawks will play for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship on Monday night after defeating the Villanova Wildcats, 81-65, in a semifinal at Caesars Superdome. The Jayhawks started fast behind the hot shooting of senior guard Ochai Agbaji, whose 21 points included four 3-point shots in the first 8:14. They were pushed by the overwhelming inside presence of senior forward David McCormack, whose season-high 25 points were built upon 10-of-12 shooting.
Kansas (33-6) will meet North Carolina Monday night in an attempt to win its fourth NCAA Tournament championship and the first since 2008. In 2012, the Jayhawks fell to Kentucky in the Superdome, its sixth championship game defeat. The 2020 Jayhawks, a 28-3 team with high expectations, did not have the chance to play in the NCAA tournament.
The previous three times Kansas and Villanova had met in the NCAA tournament, in 2008, 2016 and 2018, the winner went on to win a national championship. Two years after the disappointment of a canceled tournament, the Jayhawks can extend that streak.
“I think it does have added value to me and the players,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of the championship game appearance, “because there’s no guarantees in this tournament. A lot of times the favorites don’t win, obviously. But in ’20 we had a team that was equipped to make a run. We were so good defensively, and we had enough scoring. I thought that was probably as prepared a team to do well in the tournament as any we’ve had.”
Two years later, the Jayhawks made 53.7% of their shots, 54.2% from 3-point range. Kansas and Villanova combined for 26 3-point baskets, surpassing the Final Four record of 25 set by the same schools in a 2018 semifinal.
McCormack, who averaged 10.1 points, made 10 of 12 shots and had nine rebounds. Agbaji made six of eight shots. In the first three Kansas NCAA tournament victories, Agbaji made just 33% of his shots and 16.7% of his 3-pointers, averaging 19.2 points. On Saturday night, before a crowd of 70,602, he did not miss a shot until 7:12 remained in the game. By that point, the Jayhawks had led by as many as 19 points and were still ahead by nine.
“My confidence has still been there,” Agbaji said. “It’s just that shots are falling now. I’ve just kept my confidence and my guys have kept me up, and obviously looked for me on the court, too.”
Following Agbaji’s 3-point shooting barrage, his teammates kept the 3-point party rolling. With about nine minutes to play in the first half, Remy Martin hit a 3-pointer, followed by one from Jalen Wilson and suddenly, the Jayhawks extended their lead to 36-18, the biggest of the game to that point.
In the second half, the showering of 3-point shots continued. Agbaji set the tone with a 3-point shot on the Jayhawks’ second possession. Just before the under-four-minute media timeout, Jayhawks guard Christian Braun hit a desperation 3 as the shot clock wound down and the Jayhawk fans went crazy. This 3-pointer, followed by another by Braun with 2:43 remaining, helped the Jayhawks shut the door on the Wildcats.
“These guys told me all game just keep your confidence, keep shooting and they’ll fall,” Braun said. “And everybody tells me that. Coach always tells me that. So, I was confident in those shots.”
The Jayhawks managed to shoot the ball extremely well, but those threes were available because of dominant post play by McCormack. The senior big man started off the game hot, notching a 13-point performance in the first half, exceeding his previous average.
In the second half, McCormack continued his dominating performance. As the Jayhawks hit their three-point shots at the beginning of the second half, the paint once again opened up for McCormack. The Norfolk, Virginia product was able to put together a 12-point second half, just as Self had planned.
“He wanted us to have an inside presence, and usually if you can play inside-out it opens up more shots, more driving lanes, a lot of cuts,” McCormack said. “And I think starting off early on it opened the rest of the floor up and we played off of that and made it easy.”
For the Wildcats, Jay Wright’s team fell to 30-8 overall. Graduate student Collin Gillespie led Villanova with 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting. Senior forward Brandon Slater scored 16, but was limited to five field goals in 13 attempts. Within 2:39, the Wildcats trailed 10-0.
“They played a great game tonight,” Wright said. “I know we have to talk about some of the things we didn’t do well. But they played great, and they were well-prepared, and they really executed.”
Heading into the second half, the Wildcats defense essentially fell apart. The Wildcats saw the Jayhawks begin the second half with a layup from Braun and then Agbaji convert a 3-point field goal. From here, the Wildcats would not see a run until under 12 minutes. At that point, Brandon Slater and Collin Gillespie, who combined for nine three-pointers, tried to mount a comeback with their shooting.
“We felt like we were right there,” Gillespie said. “We were going to do whatever it took to battle back. We got down early, but it’s a long game, it’s a 40-minute game, and we pride ourselves on playing 40 minutes every night.”
The Wildcats closed the Jayhawk lead to six points, 64-58, with 6:10 to play. But once again, it was McCormick who answered the Wildcats run with a post score of his own.
“We got close,” Gillespie added. “They made some big plays. You’ve got to give them credit, they made big shots down the stretch when we got close.”