By Cameron Stewart |@
Sports Capital Journalism Program
HOUSTON — Villanova senior Daniel Ochefu couldn’t stand still. In front of his locker after the Wildcats’ shocking 95-51 victory over Oklahoma, the most one-sided national semifinal game in history, the combination of exuberance and shock wouldn’t allow his oversized limbs to stop fidgeting.
“I definitely was not expecting that coming into this game,” Ochefu said. The source of Ochefu’s surprise was the sheer dominance displayed by his team against the Sooners, a team that had easily disposed of the Wildcats nearly four months ago. This time, the Wildcats (34-5) advanced to the national championship game for the first time since the 1985 championship season and the third overall. They will meet North Carolina, which defeated Syracuse in the other semifinal.
The only thing that brought an end to the Wildcats’ dominance was the final buzzer. That buzzer signaled the end of one of college basketball’s most dominant performances. Villanova’s 44-point margin surpassed the previous semifinal record, Michigan State’s 101-67 victory over Pennsylvania in 1979, by 10 points. On Dec. 7, when Oklahoma defeated Villanova, 78-55, the Wildcats never led.
This time was different. The historic beating was fueled by domination on both ends of the court.
Offensively, the Wildcats simply could not miss. Junior Josh Hart led the attack on the offensive end, scoring 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting. Hart set the mood for the game early by attacking the paint on his way to 15 points in the first half.
While Hart was the leader, the entire Villanova roster couldn’t seem to miss. The Wildcats shot 71.4 percent from the field, including 61.1 percent on their three-point attempts. The 71.4 percent shooting is the second-highest percentage in the history of the Final Four, behind the unforgettable 78.6 percent shooting of the 1985 Wildcats in their championship game victory over Georgetown for the school’s only national championship. Villanova had six players score in double figures, including 18 from Kris Jenkins and 15 from Ryan Arcidiacono.
The defensive attack held Oklahoma (29-8) to a season low point total, 12 fewer than the previous low of 63 and 29 points beneath their season average. The Villanova defensive approach keyed itself on cutting off the head of Oklahoma’s offensive attack, Oscar Robertson Trophy winner and the nation’s third-leading scorer Buddy Hield, who was held to nine points, his second single-digit game of a memorable season.
“Just credit them, what they were doing,” Hield said. “Made it tough on me. Throwing a bunch of bodies at me. Just couldn’t get it going.”
Hield finished his Oklahoma career with 2,282 points and became the leading scorer in the history of the Big 12 conference. His 4-of-12 shooting, including a 1-of-8 night from three-point range, was caused by the Wildcats’ swarming defense. Multiple Wildcats defended Hield and all of them did an excellent job of closing out on the two-time Big 12 Player of the Year whenever he caught the ball on the perimeter. The Wildcats also sent help defenders to cut off driving lanes for Hield when he put the ball on the floor.
“We were really dialed in and focused on defense and when we play defense at a high level, it fuels our offense so we had both going tonight,” Jenkins said in the locker room. “Defensively, that’s the most dialed in I’ve ever seen our guys.”
The Sooners shot only 31.7 percent, including 6-for-27 three-point shooting. Oklahoma entered the game with the country’s second-best shooting percentage (42.6 percent) yet shot only 22.2 percent in the semifinal. Throughout the season, the Sooners had lived by the three. On Saturday night, their season died by it.
The Wildcats were out for revenge after losing to the Sooners on December 7. “They definitely embarrassed us early in the year,” Ochefu said in the locker room after the game. “Nobody forgot that.”
The Wildcats may not have realized it at the time, but Oklahoma’s success that night in Bloch Arena in Honolulu established a standard.
“Oklahoma started that game defensively, they were smacking the floor,” Villanova coach Jay Wright remembered. “Our guys were just out there playing like, ‘Oh, we’re in Hawaii, this is nice. I’m starting, finally. I sat for two years, now I’m starting. This is fun.’
“Those guys were dialed in, focused, smacking the floor, denying everything,” Wright went on. “It became a standard for us throughout the season. Even when we played well within our league, they were up around No. 1, 2, 3 in the country, we kept saying to our guys, ‘Hey, just remember how those teams are playing. If we’re going to do anything, we have to fact those teams one day. Think about how Oklahoma played us.
“That, I think, was a big part of this game.”
The Wildcats got more than revenge.
“They broke our spirit,” Oklahoma freshman Christian James said.
For the Wildcats, their spirits were anything but broken.
On a cart that was brought outside the Villanova locker room to take Arcidiacono, Hart, and Jenkins to the postgame press conference, the players found that there would be only room for two. Hart and Jenkins hopped in the back of the cart and Arcidiacono was faced with a dilemma. Without giving it much thought, a still elated Arcidiacono, commonly referred to as “Arch”, leaped into the both of their laps. The 640 pounds of Villanova upperclassmen forced the cart to pop a wheelie before Arcidiacono fell off. After surveying the situation, Arcidiacono decided walking wouldn’t be too much of a hassle.
After celebrating briefly however, the Wildcats turned their attention to Monday night’s national title game. “It feels good to get the win, but we’re going to enjoy this tonight, watch a little bit of film, and get ready for our next opponent,” Jenkins said.
“I know our leaders, our captains, they didn’t come here to beat Oklahoma,” added freshman guard Jalen Brunson.” They came here to win a national championship.”