UNC, Villanova easily advance to championship title game
HOUSTON — Heading into Final Four weekend, there were questions on how well teams could shoot in NRG Stadium in Houston, a 70,000-plus seat venue, primarily the home of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
Villanova had an emphatic answer Saturday in the first NCAA Final Four semifinal: No problem whatsoever.
Junior guard Josh Hart scored 23 points to lead a balanced attack, and the No. 2 seed Wildcats defeated No. 2 seed Oklahoma Sooners 95-51 to advance to the NCAA men’s basketball national championship game.
On Monday, Villanova (34-5) will face No. 1 seed North Carolina, which defeated No. 10 Syracuse 83-66 in the second semifinal.
Villanova head coach Jay Wright said “it simply was one of those nights.”
“I’m happy we had one of those games where we just make every shot,” Wright said. “We had end-of-shot-clock shots we just threw up and went in.”
As a team, Villanova shot an incredible 71.4% from the field and won by the biggest margin ever in a Final Four game. It was the second-best field goal percentage of the men’s Final Four, trailing only Villanova’s 78.6 percent effort (22 of 28) in the 1985 national championship game against No. 1 Georgetown on April 1, 1985.
“We got whipped in every way,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said.
It will be Villanova’s first trip to the national championship game since that 1985 appearance, when the Wildcats were a No. 8 seed. UNC is a five-time NCAA champ, the most recent coming in 2009.
“I’ll see you there,” UNC senior forward Brice Johnson light-heartedly told a television reporter.
This year’s NCAA tournament had been all about Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, aka “Buddy Buckets.” The senior guard from the Bahamas — who is second in the nation in scoring this season at 25.4 points per game, had been lighting up the scoreboard for the Sooners (29-8), averaging 29 points per game in this year’s tournament heading into the Final Four.
Saturday evening was a much different story.
Hield had his worst performance of the tournament. He was held to nine points on 4-of-12 shooting, including 1-of-8 from three-point range.
“Just credit (the Wildcats), what they were doing,” Hield said. “Made it tough on me. Throwing a bunch of bodies at me. Just couldn’t get it going.
“They made shots. We were trying to find a way to make shots. They just played terrific tonight. Sometimes shots were contested, and they made them, just played great. Hats off to Villanova. They deserved it.”
Villanova’s Hart, meanwhile, rarely missed. He finished 10-of-12 from the field.
Hart gave credit to his teammates.
“When you have guys like Kris Jenkins, Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu who can go off any night, even other guys, Jalen Brunson Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges have big nights,” Hart said. “When they’re aggressive, you know, it helps me, helps in the driving lanes. …
“I definitely wanted to come in being aggressive and just try to help them make the right play.”
This was a rematch for the two teams, with drastically different results. Oklahoma beat Villanova 78-55 on December 7 in Hawaii.
“We saw what they did to us in Pearl Harbor,” Hart said. “We were dialed in defensively, ready to step up for each other. That’s really what we did. We were just so dialed in defensively.”
Second game: A blowout against familiar foes
The second game turned into another blowout, as North Carolina (33-6) outpaced Syracuse (23-14). UNC led 39-28 at halftime. Syracuse — which was trying to become the first double-digit seed to reach the national championship game — cut UNC’s lead to seven points with 9:51 remaining to make it 57-50, but the Tar Heels weren’t seriously challenged after that.
“The last four weeks we’ve been much, much better defensively,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “We had a brain lapse there for about three minutes in the second half, but other than that I thought we were really good defensively against a team that’s hard to guard.”
Johnson and sophomore guard/forward Justin Jackson each had 16 points. Junior forward Kennedy Meeks had 15 points, while senior guard Marcus Paige had 13 points. Sophomore guard Joel Berry II had eight points and 10 assists.
UNC and Syracuse are extremely familiar with each other, as both are from the Atlantic Coast Conference. This was the third time these teams faced each other this season, with UNC now winning all three games.
Despite its reputation as a title contender in previous years, Syracuse, with the up-and-down season it has had, was one of the most improbable Final Four teams in the tournament’s history.
Losing 13 games this season, including going 1-5 in its final six games before the NCAA tournament, Syracuse was in danger of missing the tournament altogether as a bubble team. Additionally, the Orange’s head coach, Jim Boeheim, was suspended for nine games earlier this season for what the NCAA said was failing to monitor his basketball program.
Senior guard Trevor Cooney had 22 points, while freshman forward Malachi Richardson and senior forward Michael Gbinije had 17 and 12 points, respectively.
Boeheim said he told his players he was more proud of this team then any team he has ever coached.
“Tonight we had a bad start,” he told a reporter. “We missed some free throws that we can’t miss. You can’t do that against North Carolina. They’re just too big and strong and good.”