Villanova coach Jay Wright said it a few days ago about the anticipation of taking on top-ranked Kansas, that “the beauty of getting the opportunity to play a No. 1 team is that you get to see realistically where you are against the best.”
The Wildcats, ranked No. 18, discovered they were pretty good, going toe to toe with the Jayhawks for a spirited 40 minutes in a game that similarly entertained and drained a sellout crowd of 20,706 at Wells Fargo Center, and came down to the Cats’ most important offensive and defensive possessions in the final minute.
Jermaine Samuels hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 20.5 seconds to play, and Saddiq Bey hounded Kansas’ Devon Dotson into a tough runner from the baseline that missed at the buzzer, giving ‘Nova the 56-55 victory.
The win for the Wildcats (9-2) marked the fifth time this season that the nation’s No. 1 team had fallen.
Samuels led Villanova with 15 points and Collin Gillespie added 12 plus some hellacious defense. Dotson had 15 points and 7-foot Udoka Azubuike added 12 plus 11 rebounds for Kansas (9-2), which played the final 25 minutes without starting guard Marcus Garrett, its best defensive player, who limped off the court late in the first half.
The Wildcats favored the three-point shot, respecting the Jayhawks’ interior defense of Azubuike and 6-10 David McCormack. But after hoisting 21 threes in 31 shot attempts in the first half, they better found a way to take the ball to the basket if the two bigs found themselves outside after switches.
After scoring just six points in the paint in a 23-23 first half, Villanova matched that total in the opening 7 minutes of the second. The Cats took their biggest lead, 35-27, early in the second half and were up 48-44 with 7 minutes, 42 seconds to play.
But Villanova would make just three of its last 13 shots, and needed to count on its defense after the Jayhawks took a 55-51 lead on Christian Braun’s basket with 1:49 remaining.
A Gillespie steal and layup with 1:07 to play cut the deficit to two. After an Azubuike miss, Gillespie found Samuels wide open on the right wing and hit him for the deciding three-point basket.
Dotson missed the front end of a one-and-one on Kansas’ next possession. The Jayhawks had three fouls to give, using them on Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s rebound of the missed free throw and after the Wildcats inbounded the ball twice, but they eventually forced a turnover on a third inbounds play with 11.7 seconds left.
After a near-steal by Gillespie, Kansas regrouped for the last 4.3 seconds, but Dotson missed his shot over Bey, and the celebration began.
“I’m thinking, ‘Whatever happens, for these guys to battle like this, it’s their first experience like this, first experience as a go-to guy. The rest of the guys haven’t been in these games,’” Jay Wright said. “Every game is a great experience for us. This one, obviously, is something we can learn lessons from. You learn lessons from playing the best teams and there’s a lot of things they did. You learn from every situation.”
“They’re a good defensive team, very good, but I think we missed a lot of bunnies,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They missed some threes where they normally would make a higher percentage. So even though both teams are good defensive teams, I think that the offenses helped the defenses look better. They’re a good team but we got the ball in tight quite a bit and didn’t convert near as much as we should.”
“We ran the play for me and Collin,” Villanova’s Jermaine Samuels said of his game-winner. “I saw Collin starting to go and I saw him attack and then Dotson sank in a little bit and I knew it was a good time to catch and shoot. Like Coach said, if they’re going to give us threes, you’ve got to take them while we can, so I just stepped into it.”
There were times in the first half, especially after a 4-of-15 start, where it was feared that Villanova would have the same kind of shooting success as in its 25-point loss at Ohio State when the Cats made just 30.6% of their attempts. But they found a way to find openings in the defense a little better in the second half, especially when the Kansas big men drifted outside.
Self appeared a bit disappointed with the way his team played in the final stages. He would have preferred that Gillespie be fouled after his steal since his team, at the time, had just three team fouls. And he wasn’t happy that no one switched out on Samuels’ wide-open, game-winning three-point shot. “It was an easy switch,” he said. “You’re up two with under 30 to play so the worst thing you can do is play for the last shot to win it even if they make a two.”
Woe to the next No. 1 team in college basketball. With barely seven weeks gone in the season, five top-ranked teams have been knocked off. “It’s one of those years that there isn’t one team that’s dominant,” Wright said, adding the Jayhawks "are definitely worthy of the No. 1 ranking. But it’s going to be tough to hold the No. 1 ranking for anybody this season.”