LOUISVILLE — It was a full-blown ambush, and Jay Wright never saw it coming. Just before midnight on Saturday, Villanova’s head coach slipped into a packed locker room on the ground floor of the KFC Yum! Center, expecting to be welcomed by a mosh pit of celebratory Wildcats. But as Wright passed through a doorway on the right side of the locker room, Villanova’s players pounced: They dumped bottles of Dasani water all over their coach’s head, cheering loudly as it darkened Wright’s lavender-colored dress shirt.
The attack, well-planned and well-executed, served as the Wildcats’ version of a warm reception. As for the water? “Cold,” senior guard Henry Lowe assured. “Right out of the fridge.” But on this particular night, Wright’s players were an understandably peppy bunch, a group with no need to apologize for a timely prank. “Don’t get me wrong—he gets the dry cleaning bill,” forward Darryl Reynolds said of his coach. “But right now, he’s happy.”
A soggy celebration, a moist-but-memorable moment—call it what you want, but Wright wasn’t complaining. He deserved a moment of recognition after his program found a way to break through in March once again. On Saturday No. 2 Villanova sent No. 1 Kansas, the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, tumbling out of the Elite Eight with a 64–59 victory in the South Regional final. With a win, the Wildcats laid claim to the program’s third Final Four berth and its first since 2009.
Now Villanova, which had failed to advance to second weekend since that Final Four berth, finds itself one win away from playing for a national championship. And with the way these Wildcats look, it’s hard to see Wright and company slowing down anytime soon. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world to see these guys get to that point,” Wright said, “where everyone else sees that they’re as good as we see they can be.”
How good is Villanova? Consider the method behind its tourney madness: The Wildcats entered Saturday riding a seemingly unstoppable offense, which had combined to shoot 59.9% from the floor in wins over UNC-Asheville, Iowa and Miami. They had knocked down 53.0% of their three-pointers en route to the Elite Eight. But on Saturday, Villanova used a suffocating defense to send Kansas—picked by many to win the national title—sulking back to Lawrence.
The 40-minute bout was everything you’d expect between two programs that had boasted No. 1 rankings in the AP poll at different points during the year. In fact, no team other than Kansas or Villanova had stood atop the polls during the regular season’s final six weeks. What resulted was an Elite Eight clash that better resembled a boxing match; sharp but strategic jabs, frequently interrupted by key runs. In the first half, Villanova took control first by shutting down the Jayhawks’ early attack. Kansas went scoreless for an uncharacteristic 6:55, committing eight turnovers in that span. It headed into halftime trailing Villanova 32–25.
But Kansas, after the break, responded the way a No. 1 seed should. With under 13 to play Jayhawks’ guard Devonte’ Graham banked in a three from the elbow, paying homage to Michael Jordan with a not-so-humble shrug as the arena, packed to the brim with Kansas fans, momentarily erupted. Graham’s trey capped a 9–0 run for the Jayhawks and forced a timeout from Villanova, which was fighting through its own scoreless slump (3:28). Kansas led 40–36 with 12:52 left.
Villanova rallied for a 56–54 lead with 34 seconds left when Graham scrambled for a loose ball after coughing up a turnover. Officials curiously called the sophomore for a tripping foul—his fifth of the game—sending him to the bench for good with a team-leading 17 points. “I was definitely surprised it was a foul,” Graham said.
A flurry of Villanova free throws and five straight points from Kansas’s Frank Mason III left 13 seconds on the clock and the Jayhawks with the ball, down 62–59. Kansas quickly passed to halfcourt, and as Mason searched for a final shot, Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono tipped the ball loose, bouncing it into the lanky arms of 6’7’’ redshirt freshman guard Mikal Bridges. The Wildcats called a timeout, and the game, like Kansas’s season, was all but over.
In the end Villanova flummoxed a normally imposing Kansas squad into a forgettable offensive outing. The Jayhawks, who entered the Elite Eight as the nation’s fourth-best three-point shooting squad, connected on just six of their 22 (27.2%) shots from deep. They coughed up 16 turnovers, and after scoring at least 73 points in each of their tournament games, the Jayhawks managed a season-low 59 on Saturday. “It’s been the story of the tournament for us,” Reynolds said. “Our defense has been taken to another level.”
Remarkably, reaching that level for Villanova required a team-wide, herculean effort, not breakout games from singular stars. Junior forward Kris Jenkins held Kansas’s do-it-all senior star Perry Ellis, a 17.2 points-per-game scorer, to a mere four points on 1 of 5 shooting. Arcidiacono and the Wildcats’ perimeter players combined to stifle Wayne Selden Jr. into shooting 0 for 6 on threes. Meanwhile, Bridges subbed in for Jenkins during foul-plagued stretches of the second half and grabbed five steals, perhaps none more important than the game-stealing swipe with four seconds to play. In the postgame locker room, Jenkins pointed across the room to his teammate. “Mikal Bridges, defensively, is a bad boy,” he said.
When the buzzer sounded on Saturday night, the cogs in Villanova’s machine went haywire. Junior guard Josh Hart hurled the game ball to the rafters, simultaneously unleashing a primal roar. Arcidiacono and freshman guard Jalen Brunson leapt into each other’s arms. As staffers passed out South Regional Champion hats to Villanova’s jubilant clan, Arcidiacono, a senior, made his way to a makeshift stage near midcourt. The few thousand Wildcat fans who remained in their seats began singing in unison.
Happy birthday, dear Archie.
That Villanova cemented it path to the Final Four on Arcidiacono’s22nd birthday was almost too poetic, a storybook step in the senior’s career, which, until Saturday, had never featured a deep tournament run. Just three weeks ago, Arcidiacono and the Wildcats had flirted with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but a deflating loss to Seton Hall in the Big East tourney title game ended those hopes. But reaching the Final Four on the heels of an upset of Kansas has added a tangible chip to the shoulder of these pesky Wildcats. As Arcidiacono ventured down a hall to a press conference on Saturday, he clutched his fists and exclaimed to no one in particular, “The best birthday gift anyone could ever have!”
The senior could still add an extra present on April 2. That’s when Villanova takes on No. 2 Oklahoma and its electric guard, Buddy Hield, in Houston for a spot in the NCAA championship game. But for now, these Wildcats have reason to smile, to emote and even pull a few pranks. Late Saturday night, forward Daniel Ochefu rested at his locker, a cut basketball net hanging around his neck. The senior tugged lightly at the twine. “I might never take it off.”
Ochefu paused. “In my senior year, to finally get here ... wow.”