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Villanova returns to Final Four, beating Texas Tech

Jimmy Golen
Associated Press
Villanova's Donte DiVincenzo hangs on the rim after dunking over Texas Tech's Zach Smith, left, and Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver, right, during the second half.

Boston — With all of the underdogs and upsets that have upended the NCAA Tournament, no one has managed to come close to Villanova.

The 2016 national champions are headed back to the Final Four, thanks to a fourth straight double-digit victory in a month of March where they’ve played every bit like the No. 1 seed they earned.

“This tournament’s a crazy tournament. Anybody can beat anybody,” guard Jalen Brunson said after the Wildcats beat Texas Tech 71-59 in a cold-shooting East regional championship on Sunday to send Villanova back to the Final Four for the second time in three years.

“The underdog mentally, they may have it. But, honestly, they believe they’re good. That’s why they’re in that position. That’s (also) why we’re in that position,” Brunson said. “We’re a good team, and we believe we can keep getting better.”

The Wildcats (34-4) will play fellow No. 1 seed Kansas, which beat Duke 85-81 in overtime later Sunday. They will join 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago and its telegenic nun, along with No. 3 seed Michigan in the national semifinals on Saturday in San Antonio.

Sister Jean, get ready for Father Rob.

“I very much look forward to meeting Sister Jean,” said the Rev. Rob Hagan, the priest on the Villanova bench. “I was 12 years of Catholic School and taught by the nuns. I have great respect for the Nuns. Usually what Sister says is what goes.”

But if these two Catholic schools — one Jesuit, one Augustinian — meet in the national championship game, the Wildcats won’t be without spiritual support of their own.

“He’s our rock,” said guard Donte DiVincenzo, who scored eight points. “He keeps us level-headed to make sure we don’t get too high or too low. So to be able to share that moment with him was actually real fun.”

Eric Paschall had 12 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, Brunson scored 15, and DiVincenzo also had eight of the Wildcats’ season-high 51 rebounds. After starting four guards, Texas Tech (27-10) grabbed just 33 boards and shot just 18 free throws compared to 35 for Villanova to miss a chance to play for a championship in its home state.

“We knew they were a great 3-point shooting team and talented players, but we also knew how tough they were,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “We knew the identity of their team was the toughness and physicality, and that proved to be true.”

The teams matched each other with 33 percent shooting from the floor — Villanova’s lowest since 2015— and the Wildcats made just 4 of 24 from beyond the arc. One of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams in NCAA history, they need seven to set a Division I single-season record.

They’ll get that chance in the Final Four.

“Wasn’t really a pretty offensive game. But we played pretty good defensively too,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team spent eight weeks in two different stints as the No. 1 team in The Associated Press Top 25 this season.

“That’s why I give Texas Tech credit, they did a great job,” Wright said. “But we don’t rely on our shooting. There’s a lot more to the game. Our guys take pride in that. We never worry about missing shots. It’s fun when they go in, but we don’t worry about missing them.”

play tough and ugly,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

After falling into early 9-1 hole Villanova held Texas Tech to just 23 points in the opening 20 minutes — a season-low for a half for the Red Raiders.

“We were struggling from the outside. We grinded on the defensive end and that’s what helped us pull this one out,” Villanova guard Jalen Brunson said. “It was just grinding on the defensive end and not really worrying about our shots falling or not. … Just really trying to stick together.”

The Wildcats also notched six steals and outrebounded Texas Tech 51-33, including a 31-22 defensive rebounding edge. It limited the Red Raiders’ second-chance opportunities and left them playing catch-up throughout the second half.

Villanova forward Eric Paschall, who finished with 12 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, said he and his teammates took pride in winning such a physical game.

“It means a lot to us. Just to know that we could tough a game out like that,” he said. “They’re a very talented team. Their defense is great. They have some talented offensive players. Just to be able to do that with my brothers out there is, again, a blessing. … We worked hard all year. We did a great job of it, and we just kept getting better. So it shows that we can fight through a lot. We keep playing for each other.”

Wright said the seeds of Sunday’s defensive effort might have its roots in the Wildcats’ first loss of the season — a 101-93 setback at Butler at the end of December.

The coaching staff knew after that game it was clear that offense alone would not be enough to carry this team to where it wanted to be by season’s end.

“That kind of was a slap in the face to us,” Wright said. “We said at that time, we’re not going to just change this — it’s going to take time. It’s going to go back to basics. It’s going to take a lot of time. … And it’s starting to pay off now at the right time.”