SAN ANTONIO — It’s the rare NCAA Tournament regional final that sounds, feels, and has the sense of a home game for one of the two teams. These elimination games are contested at neutral sites, or are supposed to be. Saturday night at AT&T Center did not sound that way, feel that way, have that sense. The University of Houston is just 200 miles east of here, and its basketball fans flooded this city and filled this arena, and every time their Cougars made a fine play or drew a little closer on the scoreboard, those fans stood and roared as if this were a home game on campus.
And every time they did, Villanova would be Villanova. The Wildcats would take their time, run their offense in their customary exacting manner, snap passes around the perimeter, and make a shot. Or pump-fake, draw a foul, get to the free-throw line, and knock down two from there. All season, Houston wanted to rattle its opponents, and for most of the season, it succeeded. But if there’s one thing that the Wildcats do not do, they do not get rattled. They play in the Big East and at a packed Madison Square Garden in their conference tournament. They make certain to keep scheduling early games against the Big Five, against four local teams whose seasons would be made – at least in the minds of many of their alumni – with just a victory over Villanova. This season, the Wildcats played at Baylor, at UCLA.
You want an explanation for why they withstood that cauldron Saturday, why they scored the game’s first five points and never lost the lead thereafter, why they shot 15-for-15 from the free-throw line under such pressure and won, 50-44? There’s one. There’s a great one. Stand a Villanova player on a high wire, have him pour poison from one test tube into another while a mob shrieks at him, and you’d be comfortable trusting him not to spill a drop.
“Everywhere we go … it’s sold out,” coach Jay Wright said, “and I think our guys get used to that. We talk about that, being able to control what we can control. We can’t get caught up in emotion. We’ve got to stick together, and we’ve got to talk to each other about sticking together, and I thought the guys did a great job of that.”
That confidence, that discipline, and that collective experience and will are the reasons that, for the third time in the last six NCAA Tournaments, the Wildcats have reached the Final Four. They didn’t beat Houston as much as they out-matured Houston, out-calmed Houston, outwaited Houston. There was nothing about the game that was pretty. “It was like playing against our own selves,” Villanova guard Caleb Daniels said. The Cougars, seeded fifth in the South Regional but favored over the No. 2 Wildcats, don’t want to play pretty basketball, and they don’t bother to try. They do everything possible to discombobulate you … except what would happen against an opponent too tough and smart to be discombobulated?
Villanova led by 11 with more than 11 minutes remaining in the game, then went more than 6 1/2 minutes without actually putting the ball through the hoop. Its only basket during that stretch came on a goaltending call against the Cougars. Houston cut that lead to two. This place throbbed with noise. And out of a timeout, Collin Gillespie made a split decision to wave off a screen from Jermaine Samuels, choosing instead to go one-on-one against his defender. He drilled a pull-up jump shot with 5:02 left. It was the only shot from the field he made in the game. It was the only one he needed to make.
“They were soft blitzing me basically the whole game,” Gillespie said. “That time they just happened to switch. So I wanted Jermaine to go down into the post. I had a mismatch, so I wanted to attack it and either get somebody else a shot or give myself a shot.”
The lead was back to four. Houston never drew closer. Two possessions later, with the shot clock about to expire, Justin Moore drove the lane, drew a foul, and swished his two shots. With 1:04 left, Villanova up four, Samuels beat his man off the dribble for a contested layup. With 35 seconds left, Moore, trying to create a shot for himself, slipped and fell to the floor. He turned the ball over on a jump ball. Worse, he limped to the bench, his arms draped over two teammates’ shoulders. He never returned to the game, and Wright admitted afterward that the leg injury, whatever it was, was “probably not good,” hinting that Moore would be unavailable for the Final Four. But in the moment, the Wildcats first had to get to the Final Four. With 25.7 seconds left, Villanova still up four, Gillespie, in a one-and-one situation, knocked down two more free throws.
Again and again, Houston dared Villanova to give in, to crumble, and again and again, the Wildcats didn’t.
“In a year where I don’t think there’s any great teams in college basketball,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said, “Villanova’s got as good a chance as anybody.”
This team does not have the top-end talent of Wright’s 2018 national-championship team, or even of his 2016 national-championship team, and maybe it won’t be celebrating in the Superdome on the night of Monday, April 4. But there was plenty of revelry Saturday night in the aftermath, dozens savoring the scene.
When the final buzzer blared, Gillespie chucked the ball underhanded toward the rafters, sprinted across the court, and found Moore for a hug. As his players and coaches climbed atop a riser to pose for photos with the South Regional trophy, Wright stood to the side, away from them, watching them enjoy it, smiling. When it came time for him to cut down the netting, he tapped his heart before taking scissors to nylon. Nearby, Joe and Patti Arcidiacono – the parents of Chris, who gave Gillespie and his aching knee and ankle 2 1/2 essential minutes of rest Saturday – took picture after picture and forwarded them to Chris’ big brother Ryan, the victory and the photos a perfect present for him on his 28th birthday.
“I’m extremely appreciative,” said Samuels, who, like Gillespie, was a freshman on that ‘18 title team. “Back then, it was amazing to watch those guys from the sidelines. I had front-row tickets to some of the greatest Villanova basketball players to ever put on the jersey. You take all those experiences with you, and you try to emulate them and be them and do the things they do and put the work in like they put in, and just pray that it works out for you. Now I’m just extremely grateful to be in the position to compete and play another game.”
This much is certain: Whoever faces Villanova next week had better carry garlic, or a crucifix, or a revolver fully loaded with silver bullets, because no team in college basketball is harder to kill. On Friday afternoon, someone asked Gillespie, whose father, Jim, has been a lieutenant in the Philadelphia Police Department for nearly three decades, how being a cop’s son had influenced him as a person and an athlete.
“That’s just my family,” he said. “That’s where I come from. I lived in an area, Northeast Philadelphia, with a lot of blue-collar people who are just built that way, grew up that way. You’re not given much. You’ve got to go work for everything, and that’s something I always took from my family and the people of my neighborhood. That’s just how I live. Just work hard, and if you want something, go get it.”
He was talking about himself. He could have been talking about his team, his program. It’s a familiar tune by now for the Villanova Wildcats, but they’ll happily march to it, all the way to New Orleans.