Louisville, Ky. — Villanova players danced and celebrated after pulling off what many thought would be the NCAA Tournament’s most difficult task.
Beating Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed, required taking the Jayhawks out of their comfort zone while seizing the opportunities that resulted. The Wildcats did both effectively even though it wasn’t always pretty, and their reward is a berth in the Final Four.
Kris Jenkins made two free throws with 13.3 seconds remaining, Jalen Brunson added two more with 3.5 seconds left and second-seeded Villanova upset the top-seeded Jayhawks 64-59 on Saturday night in the South Region final. The Wildcats will play Oklahoma next weekend in Houston.
Mikal Bridges and Josh Hart each made big steals in the final minute to help the Wildcats (33-5) pull off the upset and end the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak. The Wildcats are back in the Final Four for the first time since 2009, and they can credit balanced scoring and ferocious defense.
Jenkins, Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono each scored 13 points for the Wildcats. They used a 10-0 run to take a 50-45 lead and get key baskets and plays down the stretch in beating the Jayhawks (33-5).
“Every guy on this team is willing to do whatever it takes to win, man,” said Jenkins, who made all six free throws to offset 3-for-10 shooting. “Everybody on this team sacrifices. But we’re not satisfied. We’re looking forward to our next game in Houston. This definitely is a special feeling but like I said before, we’re not satisfied.”
Devonte’ Graham had 17 points, and Frank Mason III and Wayne Selden Jr. added 16 each for Kansas, which got just four points from leading scorer Perry Ellis. The Jayhawks shot 46 percent from the field and even won the rebounding battle 32-28, but played from behind most of the night.
Even when it was ahead, Kansas never seemed in control and ended up making desperation plays that didn’t work.
Graham made 5 of 9 from long range but fouled out late, and everyone else was a combined 1 for 13 from behind the arc. Kansas also committed 16 turnovers, including several in the final minutes when it was within a possession of tying or leading.
“I think the basket shrunk a little bit for us, and certainly, they probably got some confidence the way they were defending us,” Kansas coach Bill Self said about Villanova. “But it came down them making free throws and it came down to a couple of loose balls, and that was the difference in the outcome.”
Villanova got 10 points from Daniel Ochefu, including a big jumper with 6:14 left, just one of many big plays the Wildcats made to preserve the lead after finally wresting it from Kansas.
It wasn’t easy. Mason scored five points and the Jayhawks cut it to 60-59 with 15 seconds left. But Arcidiacono, who turned 22, preceded that with four free throws before Jenkins and Brunson followed with two more. The Wildcats made 18 of 19 at the line and all eight in the final 33 seconds.
The Wildcats were also given the ball with 34 seconds left when officials determined that Graham undercut Hart on a scramble after Graham’s turnover. Graham fouled out at that point, and Mason’s foul led to the first of Arcidiacono’s foul shots.
Darryl Reynolds had two free throws and Bridges had a key tip-in for the Wildcats as well in a game in which they shot 40 percent from the field.
Villanova gets to pursue its second national title in its fifth Final Four berth, though the NCAA vacated its 1971 appearance because star Howard Porter had signed a pro contract while still in college. The Wildcats will face Oklahoma next Saturday in Houston.
More importantly, the Wildcats did what no team had been able to over two months and really wasn’t expected to in knocking out the tournament favorite. But both teams had been ranked No. 1 this season and have been winning even bigger in the tournament.
This Elite Eight matchup seemed inevitable as a result, with Villanova coach Jay Wright comparing it to a heavyweight bout on Friday. The Wildcats ended up cutting off the court with a zone defense and mixing in timely offense.
Villanova’s 40-percent shooting including 4-of-18 from long range didn’t matter as the Wildcats had the victory that moves them into April.
“We wanted to make it a street fight, make it an ugly game,” said Arcidiacono, who made 6 of 7 from the line to seal the win on his 22nd birthday. “I think we did that.”
West Regional final
No. 2 Oklahoma 80, No. 1 Oregon 68: Buddy Hield was brilliant from start to finish for Oklahoma, scoring 37 points with a fluid jumper and an answer for everything Oregon tried against him defensively.
In fact, there was only one remaining question after Hield climbed a stepladder to cut down the net that he had just set on fire: Can Buddyball take the Sooners all the way to their first national title?
At Anaheim, California, Hield hit eight 3-pointers in another utterly dominant performance, and Oklahoma advanced to its first Final Four since 2002.
“It’s special,” Hield said afterward, a piece of the net tied to his Final Four hat. “As a kid, you dream of having games like this. … I’m just happy that we all made it, and we’ve just got to finish it out.”
Jordan Woodard added 13 points for the Sooners (29-7), who streaked to an 18-point lead in the first half and never let the Ducks back in it. Oklahoma is in the Final Four for the fifth time, and coach Lon Kruger is back in college basketball’s biggest showcase for the second time after a 22-year absence.
“It’s about seeing the feelings of satisfaction on the players’ faces,” Kruger said. “They feel good about this right now, but they’ll feel even better about it years from now. They’ve got a special, special spot.”
The regional final was a monument to the formidable talent of Hield, the Sooners’ senior star who passed on NBA riches for another chance to reach the Final Four.
He carved up the Ducks’ defense from all distances with his smooth outside shot and a knack for momentum-swinging buckets.
Even Orange County resident Kobe Bryant watched admiringly from the stands, prompting some Oregon players to compare Hield to the Lakers’ retiring superstar.
“I’m not Kobe Bryant,” Hield said with an embarrassed grin. “They should not compare me. I just make shots. Me and Kobe (are) in two different classes.”
The Sooners have never won a title, but Hield’s talent suggests history could be made in Houston. Their traveling fans serenaded him with chants of “Buddy! Buddy!” after the final whistle.
Sure, he didn’t have an assist in 39 minutes. Hield didn’t need the help.
“Buddy just makes shots,” Kruger said. “He’s just unbelievable. He shoots with great confidence and doesn’t force many. He got it going early, and he made some big shots there in the second half to keep them from cutting into the lead, too.”
Elgin Cook scored 24 points for the Ducks (31-7), whose 11-game winning streak ended one game shy of the second Final Four in school history.
“No one expected it,” Cook said. “We were confident. We believed in each other, but this hurts a lot.”
Hield scored 17 points in the first half, capped by drilling his fifth 3-pointer from three steps behind the line with 4 seconds left to put the Sooners up 48-30 at the break.
He hit two more huge 3-pointers down the stretch, including a graceful, high-arching shot with 4:20 to play that pushed Oklahoma’s lead back to 17 points.
“I thought he had a phenomenal game,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “And every time I felt like we were getting ready to do something, he would jump up and make a shot.”
Oregon had beaten six NCAA Tournament-bound teams by double digits during its winning streak, but Oklahoma’s outside shooting and rebounding led to a first-half hole that was too deep for the Pac-12 champions. Hield had the highest-scoring performance against the Ducks all season.