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 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. Stand a Villanova player on a high wire, have him pour poison from one test tube into another, and you’d be comfortable trusting him not to spill a drop.
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, 50-44, on Saturday as much as they out-matured them, out-calmed them, out-waited them. There was nothing about the game that was pretty. The Cougars, seeded fifth in the South Region 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?
The answer arrived Saturday. Villanova led by 11 with more than 11 minutes remaining in the game, then went more than six-and-a-half minutes without actually putting the ball through the hoop. Houston cut that lead to two. This place throbbed with noise. And out of a timeout, Collin Gillespie waved off his teammates, went one-on-one against his defender, and drilled a pull-up jump shot. It was the only shot from the field he made in the game. It was the only one he needed to make.
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 minute, 4 seconds left, Villanova up four, Jermaine Samuels beat his man off the dribble for a contested layup. With 25.7 seconds left, Villanova still up four – Moore was on the bench now, having fallen to the floor and limped off with his teammates’ help – 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. This team does not have the top-end talent of Jay 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 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 the Wildcats are every vampire, every werewolf, every unstoppable monster rolled into one. 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.