NEW ORLEANS – When Kansas coach Bill Self sat in his final days watching a movie about his final trip to the Final Four, he couldn’t stand watching more than 12 minutes. It’s easy to imagine his intestines wriggling, his palms rotting, and his head starting to spin.
“I get tics the more I think about it,” Self said of the 2018 semi-finals in which highlights may have ended well after Kansas scored in the inaugural basket. The game turned out to be a convincing defeat for Vilanova, who would go on to win the national championship.
Self and a handful of players quietly took that beating — their second consecutive loss in the Final Four for Villanova — and made sure that didn’t happen against Saturday, jumping into an early lead and repelling the Wildcats over an 81-65 victory.
Kansas will play the winner of another semi-final match Saturday night between North Carolina and the Duke on Monday night, allowing them to overcome another memory — they lost their last game of the championship, at the same Superdome a decade ago.
The Jayhawks took the lead thanks to a nearly flawless performance from Ochai Agbaji, their first-choice 5th guard, who scored 21 points and made all three throws he attempted—including the first shot of the game—and 23 points through quarterback David McCormack. Combined, Anchors in KS made 15 from 18 rounds.
And they had to be that good.
Vilanova, who plays without Justin Moore, who ruptured his Achilles tendon last week, tried to work his way back from an early 19-point deficit, but his trio – Colin Gillespie, Brandon Slater and Caleb Daniels of New Orleans – just didn’t do it. . enough.
The Wildcats tied 64-58 on Jermaine Samuels’ 3-point game, but couldn’t get any close. When Christian Brown hit a triple pointer as the shot clock was up, he gave Kansas a 71-59 lead and spelled out the finish.
It was hard to imagine a worse start for Vilanova.
Kansas scored the first 10 points, Villanova turned the ball into four possessions in a row, Agbagi was on fire, and he made his first four shots, all from 3 throws. When Agbaji breached Villanova’s defense and fired at McCormack for an edge chatter, Kansas took a 26-11 lead just over 10 minutes into the game, temporarily knocking Villanova out.
It was hard to expect Agbaji to play such a central role when he arrived in Lawrence five years ago. He was one of the best players in Kansas City and an excellent student, but he didn’t even start with the Amateur Athletic Association team, MoKan Elite, and so he came to Lawrence as someone the coaches hoped would be a good teammate and grow into a player role.
Instead, he’s turned into something much more – a winger with a killer shot who has been Player of the Year in the Big 12, the nation’s most competitive conference over the past few seasons, and the All-America first team.
Agbaji on Saturday evening was the fulcrum of the Kansas attack that ran and cut, as the sound of sneakers screeching continuously on the Superdome floor as the ball rolled around the perimeter, knocking out one of the country’s most determined ball-chasing defenses.
Complementing Agbaji on the periphery was McCormack, the lumbering big center who sometimes found himself on the wrong end of a defensive mismatch, but on the night there was an inward force against Villanova center Eric Dixon and the thin front-end Wildcats.
When McCormack threw a snub over Samuels midway through the second half, he roared and celebrated so loudly – he clicked his head – that an official warned him on his way to the field to cool off.
This was just the latest test of Villanova’s toughness and consistency this season.
In the final seconds of the final Southern Regional victory over Houston, Moore, a junior guard, ruptured his Achilles tendon. In a flash, the Wildcats lost their best defender, a lively soccer player, a fearless kickmaker, and a fierce captain. When the Wildcats celebrated their victory, they did so only after gathering around Moore who had a towel placed over his head on the team bench.
Vilanova’s tight rotation was already curtailed by the loss of reserve Jordan Longino, who tore a meniscus in his knee while training before the NCAA Championship began.
If there is some comfort to 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 Championships, advancing to the round of 16 where they led eventual champion Baylor midway through the second half before withering.
Wright said he was watching a movie on Monday and finding out who would replace Moore in plays out of bounds and in press offense when he called Gillespie to ask if he needed to address the team about Moore’s absence.
“No way,” Gillespie told him. “Everyone is good. Don’t worry about it.”
The way it unfolded on Saturday night, it probably should have been.