Jerardi: When you thought 'Nova couldn't play better ...
HOUSTON -- How Villanova fashioned the rare 67-point turnaround from Dec. 7 to April 2 could be analyzed by some numbers savant. Or it could be explained by the Wildcats players.
While everyone in the NRG Stadium kept looking at the scoreboard as the rout morphed into a beatdown and eventually became an epic Final Four-record blowout, the players never noticed the score.
"We're so dialed in on defense, I didn't get a chance to really look at the score until I got subbed out the last time,'' Kris Jenkins said.
When it was explained to Daniel Ochefu that his team scored 25 consecutive points in barely more than 5 minutes against Oklahoma in a national semifinal, he smiled in disbelief and just said ``I didn't know that was possible, wow.''
Wow was three-letter word that kept getting repeated during and after the Wildcats really did beat the Sooners, 95-51. It was so bad that Wildcats coach Jay Wright yelled at Phil Booth to take a knee when he had a breakaway layup in the final seconds, opting instead to run out the shot clock. It was so bad that for the fourth of five NCAA games, Villanova's walk-ons were on the court at the finish.
``Every guy with the ball, we guard him as a team, five guys guarding the ball, in synch together, heart, together and tough,'' Jenkins said.
There were really two emotions when it mercifully ended, feeling sorry for an Oklahoma team with three seniors who had transformed the program to elite status. And marveling at the level of play from the Wildcats against a team that had beaten them 78-55 in Hawaii on Pearl Harbor Day.
``I peeped up late in the game at the scoreboard,'' Ochefu said. ``I was sure they weren't scoring 40 points in 25 seconds.''
None of this is happening by accident. This team is locked in on basketball and nothing else.
``We've seen the inside of a bus, the inside of a hotel, airplane, the arena and the locker room,'' Ochefu said.
It was 54-41. Exactly 5:18 later, it was 79-41. When does that happen?
This was not some directional school getting big money to lose badly in November. This was Oklahoma and Player of the Year Buddy Hield on the first Saturday in April. This was not supposed to happen, but it did.
``You're thinking about next play, substitutions,'' said Wright who also barely noticed the score. ``Probably everyone else knew earlier than I did.''
When the walk-ons hit the court, the score was 90-49, a bad 90-47 memory for Penn fans that has lingered for 45 years. I have no memory of that game. I was 14 years from my Philadelphia debut. I won't forget this game.
I couldn't imagine Villanova playing any better than it did in its Sweet 16 win over Miami or its second-round win over Iowa. But this was better because they were playing an elite offense with a legendary scorer. And they made the Sooners give up.
When you can't decide which was sharper, the offense or the defense, you have a situation. The Wildcats scored those 95 points on just 64 possessions, a cool 1.484 points per possession. They shot really well in the first half (66.7 percent) and somehow better in the second (77.3 percent). Seriously, they scored all those points on just 49 shots and crushed the Sooners in the lane, 38-20.
``I thought Villanova dictated everything,'' Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. ``They were up into us the first half…We were playing laterally instead of downhill. On the other end, they were attacking us off the dribble, winning that battle as well.''
There were no lost battles for the Cats on this night.
``They were terrific,'' Kruger said. ``We didn't have any answer for them. We would have liked to, but we didn't.''
The Sooners actually took six shots on one early second-half possession and missed them all. When there was a hint of some game pressure on Villanova, Jenkins threw a long bomb over the Sooners press to a streaking Mikal Bridges. One long step and a jam later was a statement that there would be no settling.
The Cats had more steals (12) than turnovers (11) which says something about the defense and the offense. The Sooners, one of America's most explosive teams, came completely unglued in the second half, taking 35 shots and missing 28. Whenever a team has more turnovers (8) than made shots in a half, it is going to be a very long evening. Hield, who was doing a Steph Curry in this tournament, made the game's first shot. It was his highlight in a game where he scored just nine points.
``We had everybody from Daniel Ochefu, our five man guarding him, Darryl Reynolds guarded him,'' Wright said. ``We did it so different guys were chasing him, moving off the ball, we were giving him different looks.''
On the night when Villanova got its school record 34th win in its record 39th game, the Sooners just happened to be in the way. It was the ultimate team game played just about perfectly.
``What was that?'' Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli texted an hour after the game.
It was six players in double figures, Josh Hart going totally off in the first half, everybody else in the second half, Hart, Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono taking 23 shots and missing four, the team taking 18 threes and making 11.
Lower Merion High coach Gregg Downer, who had Cats substitute big man Reynolds on his team a few years ago, said on Friday he had never seen a team more ``connected.''
Connected is the perfect word.
On to Monday night, a national championship on the line, the hottest team in the tournament a win away.
Ochefu and Arcidiacono no longer have to wonder when they might be playing their final college game. It will come in large domed stadium on the final night of the 2015-16 college basketball season, one more brilliant performance from a perfect ending.