Villanova Reaches Final Four After Almost Letting Houston Come Back

SAN ANTONIO — Saturday’s round of 8 matchup between No. 2-seeded Villanova and No. 5-seeded Houston was reminiscent of the college basketball games played decades ago: Two dogged, glass-devouring defensive behemoths scratching and clawing and barreling through defenders for tough-to-come by points.

One team, the lower seeded Cougars, had aspirations of winning its first national championship in program history, and with the best roster it has had in years to do it. The other, Villanova, has been looking to reposition itself as one of Division I’s most feared programs after a few dismal tournament seasons.

Coach Jay Wright’s Villanova team was too aggressive, too poised and too focused for Houston, which seemed ill-prepared to face an opponent it had much in common with. And even though the Cougars made a big run in the second half to narrow what had seemed to be turning into a romp, the Wildcats never relinquished the lead and won, 50-44, to advance to the Final Four for the fourth time under Wright and the first time since 2018.

With just over a minute left in the game, Jermaine Samuels, Villanova’s leading scorer, delivered a driving layup to give the Wildcats a 6-point lead, which had blunted Houston’s attempts to come back from 11 points down midway through the half.Houston’s defense, which had been suffocating during its second half run, forced a turnover but could not capitalize, and by the time Villanova’s star guard Collin Gillespie drained two late free throws, the Cougars’ chances were gone.

“Teams that cry care,” Houston’s coach Kelvin Sampson said after the game. “There were a lot of tears in that locker room.”

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Wright’s team, after an inconsistent regular season that saw it fall out of national rankings, seemed to be playing its best basketball when it needed to be. The Wildcats have now won nine straight games, including three wins in the Big East tournament for that conference title.

Houston’s defense and ability to guzzle offensive rebounds had been an impenetrable combination in the tournament until Saturday evening.

The Cougars outmuscled and outmatched the University of Alabama at Birmingham, plus Illinois and Arizona, never having met an opponent fully prepared for their collection of strength, size and athleticism. Until running into Villanova.

The Wildcats controlled the matchup the way they often do: using long possessions to set up good looks and dictating the pace.

Villanova’s ability to neutralize Houston’s strengths helped the team outlast the Cougars, even as Houston pulled within 2 points as it attempted to come back. Houston feeds off its opponents’ mistakes, but Villanova is a disciplined team that limits them.

The Cougars, known their ability to box out and create extra possessions on offense, could only pull in two offensive rebounds in the first half, and could not depend on their ability to create turnovers by attacking ball screens.

On offense, the Cougars were inconsistent, looking the worst they had all tournament.

“So we had a lot of opportunities. They didn’t go in,” Sampson said. “That happens.”

But Villanova underperformed there as well. One of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation, the Wildcats shot less than 30 percent from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes, going into the half without a single point from Gillespie.

Samuels, who powered Villanova over Michigan in the round of 16, finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Houston’s program had been dormant for years before Sampson’s arrival in 2014.

Yet against Villanova, that identity that he had built, of being tough and hyperathletic, similar to the way the Cougars had played decades ago, wasn’t enough. A few missed shots and some lost rebounds kept Sampson’s team short of the Final Four it had wanted.

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