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An ugly win, just as the cool Cats wanted it

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Final Four, the grandest stage of college basketball, the platform upon which lasting programs and eternal memories are made, was so close for both Villanova and Kansas on Saturday night. Just one game away, then just one half away, then just minutes away.

Villanova players celebrates after beating Kansas to advance to the Final Four.
Villanova players celebrates after beating Kansas to advance to the Final Four.Read more(YONG KIM/Staff Photographer)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Final Four, the grandest stage of college basketball, the platform upon which lasting programs and eternal memories are made, was so close for both Villanova and Kansas on Saturday night. Just one game away, then just one half away, then just minutes away.

They played on and waited to see which shoulder fate would tap on this night.

In the end, it wasn't pretty and it wasn't perfect. But it was Villanova.

"I'm so proud of these guys," said Jay Wright, who was soaking wet from a locker room dousing by the team. "Those guys got me really bad in the locker room. But I'll wear it like a badge of honor."

The 64-59 win by the Wildcats sends them to Houston to represent the Big East in the national semifinal game next Saturday against Oklahoma. They earned the trip with great defense on a poor shooting night, and their usual calm under pressure.

"It was a tough situation. We weren't making shots, but we thrive at that," said guard Josh Hart. "We buckle down and play defense and let the offense take care of itself. We make it ugly, take charges, do all the little things, and we knew we'd be in the game."

There was no way to know they would win it, however, not on a night in which they made barely 40 percent of their shots and just 4 of 18 three-point attempts. After three NCAA tournament games in which they couldn't seem to miss, the turnaround didn't shake them.

"We just wanted to grind it out," said guard Ryan Arcidiacono. "We wanted to make it a street fight and I think we did that."

If there was a single key to the game, it was the defensive job the Wildcats did on Kansas' leading scorer, Perry Ellis, who was limited to just five shots and made only one of those. Villanova is normally a man-to-man defensive team, but it played a lot of zone defense against the Jayhawks and collapsed on Ellis when he got the ball near the basket.

"The day we found out we were playing Kansas, he was the number one guy on the scouting report," center Daniel Ochefu said. "Everyone flowed to him and made sure we were aware of where he was. It had to be a team effort because he's a special player."

Through the final minutes of the game, as Villanova held a slight lead and Kansas kept coming and coming, the Wildcats put the game away with 10 perfect free throws. That was classic Villanova, too, a reflection of the way they begin and end every practice, working on foul shots in anticipation of just that kind of situation.

"We spend a lot of time on it year-round," Wright said. "We work on technique and shooting in every possible situation."

There is no replicating the pressure of an NCAA regional final, however. For that, you just have to wait and see.

If there was a team on the floor that seemed to come apart under the pressure early in the game, it wasn't the Wildcats. The No. 1 seed in the region and the top-ranked team in the nation looked for a long stretch of the opening half as if the expectations that come from that lofty status were a crushing weight. Kansas was unable to get into any rhythm against Villanova.

The Jayhawks could barely even manage a shot for a long while. They committed eight turnovers in the space of nine possessions to fall behind, 23-16, and Ellis was held scoreless for the entire half.

Villanova was aggressive on the handoffs every time Kansas attempted a ball screen, and one turnover seemed to lead to the next as the Jayhawks became more and more flustered. When Kris Jenkins made a late three-pointer, the Wildcats led, 32-25, at the half, but it wouldn't be that easy.

The Wildcats got in trouble as soon as the second half began, and it was foul trouble. Jenkins picked up his third foul on the opening possession of the half, then committed a turnover on a quick Kansas press and suddenly the Jayhawks were back within three points.

The Kansas momentum continued and picked up speed when Jenkins got his fourth foul and had to go to the bench. Midway through the half, the Jayhawks had built a 45-40 lead and Villanova was looking for a hero.

Typically, the Wildcats didn't find one. They found several. A streak of five straight baskets was spread around the floor, as were the stops earned at the other end, and the game teetered back and forth all the way to the finish. Kansas finally had to foul on every possession, and the last eight points came at the line for Villanova.

"It was ugly, but it was beautiful to us," Hart said.

Fate tapped Villanova and sent the Wildcats to the biggest stage of all. It didn't have to turn out that way, but on this night it did. They earned every step of the climb.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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