Hyper-focused Villanova exacts revenge in historic Final Four win
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HOUSTON — Jay Wright felt bad for Oklahoma. And not only because his Villanova team played just about perfect on Saturday night and delivered the worst beating in the history of the Final Four. It was a 95–51 win that was so exacting and destructive that it became boring. Even the theoretically lyrical part about it—Villanova’s breathtaking 71.4% shooting was the second-best rate ever in this event, trailing only Villanova’s 1985 team which shot 78.6% in its shocking title-game upset of Georgetown—didn’t feel like poetry. So, sure, these were some reasons Wright felt bad. It was almost impossible to conceive of his team playing this well, at this point. Oklahoma was supposed to show up here with a chance, and it did not have a chance at all.
But Wright, who is in his 15th year with the Wildcats, felt bad, additionally, because he could relate. He knew what it felt like to stand on a Final Four sideline in a giant stadium and look out and think everything was going to be fine. He knew about the knot in your stomach that starts burning hot when you realize, too late, that everything will not be fine. He knew what it was like to see the game recede suspiciously fast, to come to the grim understanding that the ensuing rogue wave is inevitable and will leave nothing behind after it lands.
He knew because that is how he felt seven years ago, maybe 10 minutes into a national semifinal against North Carolina. In his Villanova team, he saw a group playing a game. In the Tar Heels, he saw a group obsessed about owning a game. So North Carolina quickly took a 17-point lead, and it was over. Wright knew it, and it gnawed at him so much that he vowed he’d never let it happen again. He wouldn’t tell his kids to enjoy the moment. He wouldn’t let them soak it all in. He wouldn’t even permit them to walk through the hotel lobby to get to the team bus, lest any overzealous well-wishers clog a direct path to the business at hand. If Villanova ever returned to a Final Four, Wright promised himself, it was not for fun.
So that is a more complete explanation for why Villanova’s coach felt bad Saturday night, after his team embarrassed another very good team and turned the last chapter of Oklahoma superstar Buddy Hield’s college career to ash. He knew what it was like to see one team remorselessly seize upon this moment. And he knew what it felt like to see the wave coming on the other side, and to be unable to do a thing about it.
Thirty-one years later, after that charmed night against mighty Georgetown, Villanova played another all-but-flawless Final Four game.
Following a few days of hand-wringing about the NRG Stadium shooting backdrop potentially wreaking havoc on offenses, the Wildcats hit 35-of-49 shots, including 11 three-pointers. They averaged 1.484 points per possession, which is the sort of efficiency that a team of bionic basketball machines would have a hard time matching. On the defensive end, they ruined Oklahoma, forcing 17 turnovers and holding the Sooners to 31.7% accuracy and a gruesome .785 points per possession. They eliminated Hield, the nation’s preeminent scorer, deploying a vast array of defenders that collectively limited Hield to nine points on 4-of-12 shooting.
At one point in the second half, the Wildcats put together a 25–0 run. Someone probably should have quizzed Vice President Joe Biden, in the building for the games, about his authority to declare states of emergency. “It was one of those nights,” Villanova senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono said.
It was borne of a couple other nights, actually, the first being April 4, 2009. Wright apologized to his team after that Final Four loss to North Carolina, assuming all the blame for a bad preparation plan. He wanted them to see the sights and talk to family and friends and when it came time to watch film or practice, they could concentrate then. He didn’t grasp how much that approach would harm their outcome.
So this 2016 trip has been rigid. “Extremely sharp focus,” senior center Daniel Ochefu said. “We’ve seen the inside of the bus, the inside of the hotel, the airplane, the arena and the locker room.” So unyielding is Wright’s commitment to vanquishing all distraction that the Wildcats do now as Wright had planned after the 2009 loss and don’t walk through the hotel lobby when they’re heading out to one venue or another. They leave the elevator and walk through a different hallway, somewhat segregated from the masses, and exit a side door to get on the bus.
“You have to look around at some point,” junior forward Darryl Reynolds said. “You can’t walk around with your eyes closed. But coach has been here before. He understands that guys can easily get caught up in all this stuff.”
Concentrating really hard might not explain 71.4% shooting. But it applies when evaluating the defensive performance against Hield. The Wildcats were conscious of extending their defense on the perimeter so Oklahoma couldn’t simply walk into shots, and after that, they chased Hield with pretty much everybody; any player on the floor could switch on a screen and assume the responsibility of leaving the Sooners’ sharpshooter hardly any room at all. The result was a team that, defensively, appeared locked into its plan. Villanova freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo was tasked withimpersonating Hield on the scout team, right down to Hield’s favorite step-back three-pointers, but as DiVicenzo tried to attack and get the Villanova regulars off balance in workouts leading up to the game, he noticed something. “I didn’t see a lot of space,” DiVincenzo said.
“It was about the guy on the ball, but also the guys behind him, ready to help him out,” junior guard Josh Hart said. “I was up in [Hield] in the first half. He drove. Kris Jenkins took a charge. That’s being ready to step up for your brother.”
The other night that informed this very good night was Dec. 7, 2015, when players who weren’t around for that Final Four in 2009 had the experience their coach desperately sought to preclude this time around.
In early December, Oklahoma throttled Villanova by 23 points in the Pearl Harbor Invitational. Once again, Wright looked at his team and saw a unit happy to be in Hawaii and happy to have some fun playing a game. He looked at the other team and saw something far more foreboding. He saw the Sooners smacking the floor and denying everything on defense. The disparate attitudes produced a result that was painfully familiar to Wright. But what the Sooners couldn’t see coming, what no one could see coming, was their part in shaping what happened to them Saturday.
“It became a standard for us throughout the season,” Wright said. “Even when we played well within our league, they were up around No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 in the country, and we kept saying to our guys, ‘Hey, just remember how those teams are playing. If we’re going to do anything, we have to face those teams one day. Think about how Oklahoma played us.’
“That, I think, was a big part of this game,” Wright continued. “They did to us what we did today.”
What Villanova did was never let up on a team that looked like it expected the Wildcats to let up. It was in the second half, with no doubt lingering about the result, that Jenkins received a pass near the top of the key with Oklahoma’s Dinjiyl Walker hugged up on him. Jenkins welcomed contact as he rose up for a jumper, using his 240-pound frame to clear some room. Walker’s face caught a portion of that frame, and he crumbled to the floor, holding his chin, while Jenkins let fly a three-pointer. He sank it, and then the Wildcats’ junior forward just stared at Walker, still grimacing as he shambled to his feet.
“They broke our spirit,” Oklahoma freshman Christian James said. “Obviously it’s disappointing to get to the Final Four and get whooped like that.”
During a timeout with only 169 seconds left Saturday, Arcidiacono greeted freshman Mikal Bridges as he walked to the Villanova huddle, with index finger extended and a message to deliver.
“We got one more to play!” Arcidiacono barked.
Villanova has won its NCAA tournament games by 30, 19, 23, five and now 44 points. It is eviscerating just about everyone in its path, save the squeaker against top overall seed Kansas in the regional final. It apparently has not diverged from the business at hand, not by a fraction, and it is safe to assume it will not detour before Monday night and a meeting with North Carolina for the national championship.
Wright lingered on the floor for some media responsibilities after the game, and when he returned to the locker room, what he saw impressed him. “No jumping down or anything,” the Wildcats coach said. “Just business.”
He hadn’t seen Ochefu, the stalwart senior center, walk up the ramp with a towel around his neck and his own right index finger extended the entire way. “One more,” Ochefu said. Wright didn’t see Hart, who out-Buddied Buddy on Saturday in a 23-point outing fueled by 10-of-12 shooting, jog along a black carpet and fist-bump a supporter while delivering a similar mantra. “One more, one more,” Hart said. “We’re not done yet.”
In 1985, Jay Wright was an assistant at the University of Rochester, a Division III school, attending his first Final Four as part of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He was also the assistant intramural director at Rochester, so after the Saturday semifinals, he had to return to campus to set up Monday night floor hockey. He watched at the house of the women’s soccer coach as his idol, then-Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, conjured perhaps the most magical championship-game victories ever.
Thirty-one years later, the current Wildcats coach doesn’t want that team to ever lose that magic. He doesn’t want to do anything to impinge on that legend. So there’s something in Jay Wright that makes him worried about another Villanova national championship. But he set this team on a straight line to Monday long ago. He can’t do anything about it now.