SAN ANTONIO — Nobody in college basketball has been better at closing time than Villanova over the last decade, with two national titles to show for it.
Though the players are different these days, the result was the same Sunday in the South Regional final.
Villanova earned coach Jay Wright’s fourth trip to the Final Four with a 50-44 victory over Houston, considering the Cougars’ ultra-physical style and their massive crowd advantage to earn a trip to New Orleans next week.
The Wildcats, who were seeded No. 2 in the region, won despite shooting just 29 percent from the field and making 5-of-2 from the 3-point line. But they were able to lead start-to-finish, then fend off a late Cougars push, because they made all 15 foul shots, turned the ball over just nine times and held their own on the boards against a team that has made rebounding its specialty all season.
Leading by just four points late, Villanova senior Jermaine Samuels (16 points, 10 rebounds) found his way to the rim for a layup with 1:06 remaining — one of many massive plays by the Wildcats down the stretch when Houston needed a stop to give itself a chance.
Though Houston wasn’t done yet — it had the ball down 48-44 with 35 seconds left after Villanova guard Justin Moore slipped and got tied up — Taze Moore’s running layup spun off the rim and eventually into the safe hands of point guard Collin Gillespie , who knocked down two free throws to all but clinch the victory.
It was one of several huge moments down the stretch for Gillespie, who shot just 1-of-6 from the field against terrific defense by Moore while perhaps battling a left knee that he tweaked on Thursday against Michigan.
But Gillespie’s cool was valuable for Villanova in a difficult game and environment where nearly all the fans in the building were rooting for Houston, whose campus is just a few hours away. Though it was his only field goal from him, Gillespie scored arguably the biggest basket of the game with 5:20 remaining after Villanova’s 11-point lead had been reduced to 42-40. After a timeout by Wright, Gillespie drained a 17-foot jumper with a hand in his face — one of many moments where Villanova made a play to blunt Houston’s momentum.
This turned out to be every bit the rugby game on hardwood that you would have expected watching these teams through the tournament. Houston, of course, was determined to make it as physical as the officials would allow — and they allowed a lot of bumping and grabbing that would make most teams in the country uncomfortable.
Villanova withstood it and ultimately never gave up the lead, despite never getting into any kind of rhythm offensively. And though Houston eventually started to get some traction on the offensive glass in the second half, the Cougars were limited to 14 second-chance points.
Houston, of course, didn’t shoot well at any point in the game either, making just 1-of-20 from the 3-point line and 30 percent overall.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism