NEW ORLEANS — Jermaine Samuels slung an arm around Collin Gillespie’s shoulder, their era of extended Villanova hoops over, careers stretched to five seasons, a last season extended to the Final Four.
It ended Saturday evening inside the Superdome when the Kansas Jayhawks were too much early, and too tough late. The only top seed in this Final Four advanced to Monday’s final with a 81-65 victory, moving on to face the North Carolina, an 81-77 winner of Duke in the nightcap. Big man David McCormack led all scorers with 25 points on 10 of 12 shooting, while Ochai Agbaji hit for 21 points after missing only the last of his seven three-point tries.
The high hurdles the Wildcats put in front of themselves shortly after the Final Four gates opened … those opening minutes will linger for Villanova, Agbaji, a first-team All-American, turning this packed football palace into a playground.
“It was our game plan not to let him get going,” Jay Wright said later. “And we made some mistakes. But not being in contact with him, letting him catch and shoot, it was [not] our game plan going in … You go down 10-0 against a team that good, you’re in trouble.”
This wasn’t some Cinderella 2021-22 ride to the Final Four by Villanova. This was a tough, veteran bunch, who without injured star Justin Moore, proved their toughness again inside the Superdome, drawing within range after falling behind by as much as 19, forcing Kansas to re-prove itself, which Kansas fully did.
Of course Villanova missed Moore, probably mostly at the defensive end, especially at the start. Those first 15 oh-so-dominant Rock Chalk Jayhawk minutes fully showed why Wright had issued a storm warning of sorts, saying Kansas was more like Villanova’s 2018 team stylistically than his own current group.
“We don’t have the firepower that that [2018 Villanova] team had,” Wright had said the day before. “Kansas is a way faster and much more explosive and much more perimeter-oriented team than that team. So it’s almost like we’re flip-flopped in terms of what the teams are like. So different.”
Mark it down as prophecy, until a late first-half 10-0 run fueled by Gillespie breathed some life into the Wildcats just before halftime. Prior to that, it looked like it was going to be a total replay of that 2018 semifinal, when Villanova led the Jayhawks at the break, 47-32 .
Gillespie, winner of the Bob Cousy award as the nation’s top point guard, finished his five-year career with a loss, but a head held high, scoring 17 points and hitting 5 of 8 threes before coming out with 35.4 seconds left. Gillespie left hugging his coach and then the assistants, and then his teammates.
“A legend of Villanova basketball,” Caleb Daniels called Gillespie.
“He holds us to the same standard he holds himself,” Brandon Slater added.
“It’s not just being a basketball player but being a Villanova man,” Wright said. “He’s one of the best ever.”
Moore had wheeled into what they call a “breakout room” two hours before game time, telling reporters about how when he fell last week at the end of the Houston game.
“I thought the ref had tripped me up,” Moore said. “That’s what it felt like. That right there shows you that it’s the Achilles. Usually, it feels like someone kicked you in the back of the leg or something.”
Moore said it’s his understanding that he’ll have a six- to nine-month recovery, so you can do the math from there on what his timetable could be for getting back on the court. It wasn’t just his defense Villanova missed early. The Wildcats had four turnovers before they got their second basket.
Much later, after Villanova drew within seven with just under 13 minutes to play after a couple of made threes by Daniels and Slater, how would Kansas respond? Like a top seed that deserved it. The Jayhawks scored on their next four possessions, inside off an offensive rebound, hitting two threes, and then a Jalen Wilson layup drawing the lead back up to 62-50.
Villanova ends the season as the top free-throw shooting team in Division I history. A footnote. Few opportunities to use that advantage this night.
“I thought we were disciplined defensively,” Bill Self said. “I thought we stayed down on shot fakes, basically for 40 minutes. And with the exception of defending the arc, I thought we just played terrific.”
Time after time, the Jayhawks showed their credentials, answering every Villanova run with one of their own.
“We always had an answer,” Self said of his guys.