NEW ORLEANS — As Villanova’s starters were introduced to the sold-out crowd, Jay Wright sat on the bench, his arm around Justin Moore.
It was a touching moment, the Hall of Fame coach comforting his injured star. It also symbolized the two hours to follow: The Wildcats needed Moore to win this game and he desperately wanted to be out there. But, a heartbreaking injury got in the way.
Without him, they didn’t have enough firepower or capable perimeter defenders against the top-seeded Jayhawks’ balanced inside-out attack. Villanova couldn’t contain the two Kansas stars, David McCormack and Ochai Agbaji, and fell to the Jayhawks, 81-65, in the opener of this highly anticipated Final Four of national powers at the Caesars Superdome. Kansas moves on to Monday’s national championship game, its first trip there in a decade, to face the Duke/North Carolina winner.
In their third Final Four in six years, the Wildcats absorbed a number of body blows. They fought back, responding after it looked like they would get blown out early, and putting together multiple mini-runs. Ultimately, though, Villanova was overwhelmed by the deeper and more talented team in payback for the Wildcats’ lopsided Final Four victory over Kansas.
The bruising McCormack owned the paint, notching 25 points and nine rebounds, and Agbaji (21 points) sank six of Kansas’ 13 3-pointers. The Jayhawks got whatever shot they wanted, and hit on a sizzling 54 percent from the field. In his final game at Villanova, fifth-year senior Collin Gillespie had 17 points and Brandon Slater added 16.
After trailing by as many as 19, Villanova got to within six with 6:10 left, but never closer. Kansas responded by scoring 11 of the game’s next 12 points putting away this national semifinal.
Kansas scored the first 10 points, a bad omen for the action to follow. It was 16-5 and 26-11 halfway through the first half. McCormack and Agbaji were each outscoring Villanova at that juncture.
The lead increased to 19, at 38-19, after a Jalen Wilson follow. The Wildcats finally began to find their footing, in part due to McCormack spending the final 6:02 on the bench with foul trouble.
Villanova reeled off 10 straight points, eight coming from Gillespie, and went into the break down just 11. It could’ve been much worse, after Kansas started by hitting 13 of its first 19 shots from the field and seven of its first 10 from distance. Without having to account for the physical McCormack in the paint in the latter stages of the opening half, Villanova was able to focus more on the Jayhawks’ perimeter weapons, and limited Kansas to two points over the final 4:52 of the stanza.
Moore’s absence meant extra attention on Gillespie and more opportunities for his teammates. But in the first half, the Wildcats didn’t get nearly enough offensive production from players other than Gillespie. He hit four of their 10 shots from the field and accounted for 11 of their 29 points.
As was the case in the first half, Kansas came out for the second half like it was shot out of a cannon, quickly pushing the lead back out to 16. Villanova was undeterred. It scored eight straight to crawl back to within eight and twice was just seven behind the Jayhawks. With under nine minutes left, Caleb Daniels had a chance to make it a four-point game, but his 3-pointer went in and out and McCormack sank two free throws on the other end.