SAN ANTONIO — High above the court here at AT&T Arena, the video board flashed with a succession of highlights of Jermaine Samuels, three tough layups and a steal, all from the first half Thursday night, all of them and more necessary for Villanova to get what it has now: another game Saturday, another shot at the Final Four.
At the end of the clips, the screen froze on Samuel’s head shot with the words GRADUATE FORWARD underneath. The graphic was intended to denote Samuels’ academic year and his position, but it might as well have meant that he had spent all his studying on how to play smart and gritty basketball. Collin Gillespie did what Collin Gillespie does, drilling the three-pointer that finally gave Villanova some distance from Michigan in a 63-55 Wildcats win.
It was Samuels, though, who went 4-for-4 from the foul line in the closing seconds, who ran himself ragged and turned himself into a quasi-center to take on talented 7-footer Hunter Dickinson. Samuels finished with 22 points, seven rebounds, two steals, and two blocked shots and reaffirmed the everlasting admiration of his teammates and head coach.
Five years, 1,251 career points, a national champion once and bidding to be one again: The kid already has a Ph.D in the course that counts most to him, in the subject that Jay Wright teaches to all his players: Villanova basketball.
“It was awesome,” Wright said. “We were really asking a lot of him on the defensive end.”
They asked as much or more of Samuels on the offensive end, too. Dickinson, a sophomore, is 7-foot-1 and 260 pounds, a monster down low who averaged 18.7 points and 8.4 rebounds this season ahead of Thursday, with the touch to shoot better than 80% from the free-throw line. “We didn’t run into anybody anywhere like Hunter Dickinson,” Wright said.
At 6-7 and 230, Samuels gave away six inches and 30 pounds to the man he guarded for most of the game, and he had the added burden of being the player charged with neutralizing Dickinson’s effect on Villanova’s halfcourt sets.
So Samuels spent those sets sprinting, setting screens, cutting to make Dickinson follow him, to pull him away from the basket and create space for the Wildcats’ perimeter players to drive to the basket. It was an exhausting assignment. “It sounds good,” Wright said, “unless you’re the guy who’s got to do it. … We were really concerned. He never wants to come out. One time, he said, ‘I’ve got to. I’ve got to take a blow.’ That was a gutty effort.”
“I knew I had my teammates behind me, that they would make plays for me, and that gave me all the confidence in the world,” Samuels said. “He’s a phenomenal player, so he’s going to get great looks at the basket. But knowing I had teammates behind me gave me all the confidence I needed.”
That last line wasn’t just lip service. The Wildcats played defense at a higher tempo than usual, pressuring Michigan’s guards to disrupt the timing of the Wolverines’ offense, to prevent Dickinson, an excellent passer, from getting the ball at particular times at particular spots on the floor. He still had 15 points and 15 rebounds, but those buckets were hard to come by; he missed 10 of his 16 shots from the floor. It was enough for Samuels to be as stout as he could, to give as little ground as possible when Dickinson started pounding the ball and backing him down in the post, to turn the five-foot hook shots that Dickinson was accustomed to into eight-to-10 footers that were more difficult to make.
“We work on that every day in practice,” Samuels said, “on what gives us the best chance to not commit fouls. Also, he’s going to get the ball at some point. You just try to make it as difficult as possible, and once he gets the ball, you just try to be as solid as possible, know that you have help behind you.”
For the 36 minutes that he was on the floor, Samuels appeared neither tired nor bothered by the back spasms that had threatened to keep him out of a Big East Tournament game less than two weeks ago. Four times Thursday, he drove past Dickinson for layups, the last of those with 2 minutes, 20 seconds left in regulation, a clutch basket that restored a precarious Villanova lead to six.
Over those closing 140 seconds, Samuels had six points and two rebounds, and when he sank his last free throw with four seconds left in regulation, with a berth in the Elite Eight assured, Wright took him out of the game. The Villanova fans behind the team’s bench gave him a standing ovation, and Wright pulled him close and whispered something in his ear. What was it?
“That I was proud of his toughness,” Wright said, “but we have more work to do.” One more game, at least, for Villanova. One more chance for Jermaine Samuels to show everyone that he’s an expert in everything he has learned.