Sielski: No end to Villanova's attack
HOUSTON - This was late in the second half Saturday night, and Jay Wright lost his mind. This was deep into one of the most flabbergasting games in Final Four history - Villanova 95, Oklahoma 51 - and one of Wright's players, guard Phil Booth, flew toward
HOUSTON - This was late in the second half Saturday night, and Jay Wright lost his mind. This was deep into one of the most flabbergasting games in Final Four history - Villanova 95, Oklahoma 51 - and one of Wright's players, guard Phil Booth, flew toward the basket on a breakaway layup and appeared to be fouled. No referee's whistle blew, and Wright began yelling at the officials, livid that Booth was not on his way to the free-throw line. He screamed at such volume and pitch that Booth, even out on the floor, even with NRG Stadium full of people and humming with sound, could hear him.
"We just wanted to keep attacking them," Booth said.
It was all Villanova did to the Sooners, all night, in advancing to Monday's championship game, in reaching the brink of its first national title since its memorable and miraculous run in 1985. Attack, attack, attack. The Wildcats (34-5) sucked out any drama from what was expected to be a matchup between two evenly matched teams - each a No. 2 seed in its respective region - and they did it with such unrelenting efficiency that they themselves couldn't be bothered to notice what they were doing and how well they were doing it.
They shot 71 percent from the field. They held Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield, the tournament's leading scorer, to nine points. It would have been understandable if TBS had cut away from its game telecast to a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond.
"I think I made a comment to one of my teammates, 'Yo, we're up 30,' " freshman guard Jalen Brunson said. "I didn't even realize what the score was. We were just trying to play hard for each other."
Along the Villanova bench, the feeling was the same. Trailing by 14 points at halftime, the Sooners (29-8) trimmed the Wildcats' lead to 46-37 four minutes into the second half. The burst didn't rattle the Wildcats as much as it seemed to offend them, as if allowing Oklahoma to get so close were an affront to the sport. Over the next nine minutes, they outscored the Sooners, 33-4. Yet every Villanova player spoke to the tunnel vision that the entire team maintained.
"It was never like a 'Oh, man, this is crazy,' " said Kevin Rafferty, a non-scholarship senior who played the game's final three minutes, once Wright decided to let the dogs stop chewing on Oklahoma's bones. "We didn't even talk about how many shots we made until we got into this locker room. Everything was just very, 'Keep getting stops. Keep getting stops. Do what we do.' And, God, it worked out."
"We're up 40," said senior center Daniel Ochefu, who finished with 10 points and six rebounds, "and you should see our huddles. If someone makes a mistake defensively, we're getting on guys like we're down 10 or 20."
It was impossible to watch Villanova's performance Saturday and not remember, if you're old enough to remember it, that '85 championship game - that 66-64 upset of Georgetown in which the Wildcats made 79 percent of their shot attempts and, as they did against the Sooners, shocked the team with college basketball's best player. It was Patrick Ewing then. It was Hield now. But this game, in truth, was something else entirely. There was no three-point shot in the NCAA tournament in 1985. There was no shot clock. The Wildcats didn't hold the ball on Saturday night. They didn't slow the game down. They played just as they have throughout this tournament.
Think about it: They beat UNC Ashville in the first round by 30. They beat Iowa in the second round by 18. They beat Miami in the Sweet 16 by 23. The outlier has been their five-point victory in the South Regional final over Kansas, which was only the tournament's No. 1 overall seed. In that context, that startling box score Saturday was nothing new.
How does that happen? A team, for instance, shoots 61 percent from three-point range, and it's not surprising?
"Ask them," Ochefu said, glancing around the locker room. "They're the ones shooting threes. All I've got to do is dunk the ball and lay it up."
Look, as arresting and impressive as it was, the Wildcats' performance Saturday assures them of nothing Monday. They will play North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the East Regional, deep and talented, and they might lose. But there's something to be said for appreciating the cold, bloodless beauty of their play against Oklahoma, even if none of them allowed himself to do so in the heat of the game. Their coach couldn't help getting caught up in it, too. Jay Wright was raging over that non-foul, that silent whistle, and then he caught himself. He looked up at the NRG Stadium scoreboard. There were 7 minutes, 12 seconds left in the game. Villanova led, 77-41. And Wright turned to the nearest official and said he was sorry.
"I reacted emotionally in the spur of the moment," he said later.
It was the only apology that he or his team offered all night, or needed to.