Kansas runs past Villanova to reach NCAA final
By Billy Witz
When Kansas coach Bill Self sat down in recent days to look at film of his last trip to the Final Four, he could not stomach watching more than 12 minutes. It is easy to imagine his gut churning, his palms getting clammy and his head starting to spin.
“I get tics whenever I think about it,” Self said of the 2018 semifinal in which the highlights may have well ended after Kansas scored the opening basket. The game devolved into a convincing defeat to Villanova, which would go on to win the national championship.
Self and a handful of players quietly took that whipping — their second consecutive loss in the Final Four to Villanova — and made sure it did not happen again Saturday, surging to an early lead and fending off the Wildcats down the stretch for an 81-65 victory in New Orleans.
Tonight, Kansas, the only No. 1 seed to make the Final Four, will play North Carolina, a No. 8 seed. The Tar Heels defeated Duke 81-77, ending the career of Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski. The matchup will give the Jayhawks a chance to vanquish another memory — losing their most recent championship game, at the same Superdome a decade ago.
The Jayhawks moved on thanks to a nearly flawless performance from Ochai Agbaji, their fifth-year senior guard, who scored 21 points and made all six 3-pointers he attempted — including the first shot of the game — and 25 points by center David McCormack. Combined, the two Kansas anchors made 16 of 20 shots.
And they needed to be that good.
Villanova, playing without Justin Moore, who ruptured his Achilles tendon last week, tried to shoot its way back from an early 19-point deficit, but its guard triumvirate — Collin Gillespie, Brandon Slater and New Orleans native Caleb Daniels, who replaced Moore in the starting lineup — did not quite have enough.
The Wildcats drew within 64-58 on Jermaine Samuels’ 3-point play but could get no closer. When Christian Braun hit a 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring, it gave Kansas a 71-59 lead and all but spelled the end.
“I had nothing to lose, honestly,” Braun said. “I just threw one up there and it went in.”
It was one of a number of plays — Agbaji’s block of a 3-pointer, others that rimmed out for Villanova, a put back by McCormack — that turned the Jayhawks way.
“We always had an answer,” Braun said.
It was hard to imagine a worse start for Villanova.
Kansas scored the first 10 points; Villanova turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions; and Agbaji was on fire, making his first four shots, all 3-pointers. When Agbaji sliced through the Villanova defense and dished to McCormack for a rim-rattling dunk, Kansas had thrust its lead to 26-11 a little more than 10 minutes into the game, prompting a timeout by Villanova.
“The reason they were effective inside with their size was because they got us spread out early with Agbaji hitting 3s and we weren’t able to get off and help in the post,” coach Jay Wright said, adding that keeping Agbaji in check was a priority. “That can become a problem for us.”
That Agbaji would play such a central role was hard to see coming when he arrived in Lawrence five years ago. He was one of the better players in Kansas City and an excellent student, but he did not even start for his Amateur Athletic Union team, MoKan Elite, and so he came to Lawrence as somebody whom the coaches hoped would be a good teammate and grow into a role player.
Instead, he has morphed into something much more: an athletic wing with a deadly jump shot who was the player of the year in the Big 12, the most competitive conference in the country over the past few seasons, and a first-team All-American.
“Obviously, my role has changed over the years,” Agbaji said. “I came in just being a contributor, a guy off the bench, and then I ended up earning my starting role. As the years went by, my scoring was more needed on the teams and then this year, obviously, just to step up and be that man.”
Agbaji made just two of his first 15 3 pointers in the tournament before regaining his shooting touch in the Midwest regional final against Miami. Even when he was struggling, his confidence did not waver and he found other ways to contribute.
Agbaji on Saturday night was the fulcrum of a Kansas offense that whirled and cut, the sound of sneakers persistently squeaking on the Superdome floor as the ball zipped around the perimeter, relegating one of the nation’s most determined defenses to ball chasing.
Complementing Agbaji on the perimeter was McCormack, the lumbering senior center who has sometimes found himself at the wrong end of defensive mismatches but on this night was a force inside against Villanova center Eric Dixon and the Wildcats thin frontcourt.
When McCormack threw down a dunk over Samuels midway through the second half, he let out a roar and celebrated so fiercely — tapping himself on the head — that an official warned him on the way down the court to cool it.
“How well we shoot in, in large part, probably depends on Ochai in many ways, because he’s going to take the majority of the 3s,” said Self, who called for a lob to him on the opening possession, which ended with Agbaji calmly sinking a 3-pointer. “And the start he got us off on, I think he just gave everybody else confidence.”
This was only the latest trial of Villanova’s toughness and togetherness this season.
Moore’s tendon injury came in the waning seconds of the South regional final victory over Houston. In a flash, the Wildcats had lost their best defender, a vital ballhandler, fearless shotmaker and fierce leader. As the Wildcats celebrated their victory, they did so only after gathering around Moore, who had a towel draped over his head on the team’s bench.
Villanova’s tight rotation had already been narrowed by the loss of reserve Jordan Longino, who tore cartilage in his knee during practice before the start of the NCAA Tournament.
If there was some comfort for the Wildcats, it is their familiarity with managing a short-handed roster.
A year ago, they lost Gillespie to a knee injury at the end of the regular season. They regrouped to play well in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the Sweet 16, where they led eventual champion Baylor midway through the second half before wilting.