By Aidan Wilkins | @AidanJWilkins
Sports Capital Journalism Program
SAN ANTONIO — Villanova not only defeated Kansas in a Final Four matchup on Saturday night, the Wildcats crushed the Jayhawks, 95-79, in a game that was never close.
In a matchup of No. 1 seeds, Villanova blew things open early, jumping out to a stunning 22-4 lead midway through the first half.
“Well, it was just one of those nights,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “Man, we made every shot to start the game. And when you get up 22-4, if you’re a decent free throw shooting team it’s tough to come back on that.”
While the Wildcats were thrilled with the fast start, the Jayhawks began to feel the heat of an early double-digit deficit. “We knew going in that we were probably going to have to hope that they were going to miss some,” says Kansas head coach Bill Self. “But then after we got discombobulated we were never able to recover.”
Villanova, 35-4, advanced to the national championship game for the second time in three tournaments. The 35 victories tied the school record set by the 2016 national championship team. The Wildcats will meet Michigan on Monday night with a chance to win a third championship in school history.
The 16-point loss by the Jayhawks, 31-8, tied for their second-worst in their NCAA Tournament history, matching a 2001 regional semifinal loss against Illinois when the Jayhawks fell 80-64. The margin was two points less than the 60-42 Jayhawk loss to Indiana in the 1940 national championship game.
Villanova’s hot start was fueled by a record-setting performance behind the arc, as the Wildcats hit 13 3-pointers in the first half, finishing with 18 total, the most ever in a Final Four game. This broke the previous record of 13 held by UNLV (in the 1987 national semifinal against Indiana) and Duke (from the 2010 national semifinal against West Virginia). The Wildcats also tied the record for 3-pointers attempted in a Final Four game with North Carolina, who also launched 40 3-pointers in the 2005 National Championship game.
“We were fortunate it happened to us tonight,” says Wright. “We shoot them up and we sleep in the street. Sometimes they go in. Sometimes they don’t. This was one of those nights when everything went in.”
Wright went as far as to compare this year’s team to his past teams, saying, “It’s our best offensive team. We’ve had some good ones. This is definitely our best.”
The Wildcats also received a big boost from their frontcourt. Junior Eric Paschall and redshirt freshman Omari Spellman dominated the Kansas frontline, adding a combined 39 points and 16 rebounds.
“We don’t pride ourselves on shooting the ball well,” says Spellman. “We pride ourselves on defending and rebounding, and that’s our true measure of success in playing Villanova basketball.”
Paschall added, “Like I said, tonight was just fun. Playing defense and rebounding with them, it’s great.”
Despite the Wildcats’ blazing shooting performance, All-American junior guard Jalen Brunson, who scored 18 points, felt his team would have found a way to win, even without the hot start. “But if we weren’t making shots, I feel like we would have grinded the game out, win by maybe one or two possessions.”
The Jayhawks likely felt the same way about their chances prior to the game. However, the Jayhawks fell behind by as many as 23 and never got closer than a 15-point deficit in the second half.
After coming off the court for the last time as a Jayhawk, All-American senior guard Devonte’ Graham fell into coach Self’s arms, like a son looking to be consoled by his father. “You know, it’s not the way you want it to end,” said Graham. “But even if you lost by one point it will still hurt.”
The only word that describes the Kansas locker room after the game is disbelief. Freshman guard Marcus Garrett starred off into the distance, while junior guard Lagerald Vick somberly burrowed his head between his knees.
“Not a happy feeling when you lose,” said sophomore center Udoka Azubuike. “When you know you’re one step away from your dreams. It’s an awful and bitter feeling.”