Villanova gave its fans some hope Saturday throughout the first half of its Sweet 16 game against Baylor, playing sound defense and moving the ball around well on offense to hold the advantage.
But the Bears’ calling card — defense — dominated in the second half, confounding the Wildcats often during a scoreless stretch of more than five minutes, and the top seed moved into the South region final with a 62-51 victory over the short-handed Cats at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Playing without injured point guard Collin Gillespie, who watched the game live with sidelined teammate Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, the Wildcats finished their season with an 18-7 record that included a seventh trip to the Sweet 16 under coach Jay Wright.
“I’d like to say I’m really proud of our guys and I love this team, love coaching this team,” Wright said. “We were good enough to beat them, they just played better down the stretch. Down the stretch, their defense just got into us and wore us down and it made the difference in the game.”
After shooting 50% in the first half, the Cats made just 37.5% of their field-goal attempts in the second half and missed all nine of their 3-point shots while turning the ball over nine times. Baylor (25-2) scored 13 points off the turnovers.
Villanova took control of the game in the first half with a 13-0 run and outscored the Bears, 19-5, in the final 8 minutes, 33 seconds to take a 30-23 halftime lead. The Cats held Baylor, the nation’s top 3-point shooting team at 41.5%, to just two 3-point baskets in 12 attempts in the opening 20 minutes.
The Bears came out much more aggressive in the second half, driving to the basket at will, but it was their defense that swung the momentum in their favor.
It all started to go wrong for the Wildcats after Justin Moore’s layup gave them their last lead at 41-39 with 11:29 remaining. The Cats then went scoreless for the next 5:15, turning the ball over on each of their next four possessions after Moore’s basket while the Bears went on an 8-0 run that gave them a 47-41 lead on Matthew Mayer’s layup with 8:10 to play.
“They really got into our guards and prevented us from initiating offense,” Wright said. “They just contested every pass, every cut. It actually took us out of running offense and we had to try to just drive the ball and try to get some post-ups, but we didn’t do a good job of that. But I think the credit goes to their defense.”
“You could say that we got sped up a little bit, their defense went to another level,” said senior forward Jermaine Samuels, who led the Wildcats with 16 points. “During those times you’ve got to be solid with the ball, and we just didn’t do a good job of staying solid and they got out in transition.”
A follow-up basket by Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who was held to eight points, ended the drought with 6:14 remaining, but Villanova would not score another field goal for the next 3:16 while committing two more turnovers. Davion Mitchell hit back-to-back baskets to extend the Bears’ lead to nine at 56-47 before Moore’s layup cut the deficit to seven.
But Adam Flagler, who scored 16 points off the bench to lead the Bears, knocked down six consecutive free throws to ice the game and send Baylor to its third Elite Eight game under coach Scott Drew.
Moore added 15 points for the Wildcats, who did a fine job on All-America guard Jared Butler, limiting him to nine points on 4-of-14 shooting that included one 3-point basket in nine tries.
In the first half, a 5 1/2-minute dry spell by the Wildcats sparked a 10-0 Baylor run that gave the Bears an 18-11 lead on Butler’s 3-pointer with 8:33 left in the half. Villanova then turned the tables with 13 straight points in a 3:49 period, led by 3-pointers from Caleb Daniels and Moore and capped by Robinson-Earl’s tap-in that made it 24-18 with 5:20 to play.
Samuels scored five of his nine first-half points during the run.
Flagler scored five straight points for the Bears to make it a three-point game but the Wildcats scored the final four points on layups by Moore and Eric Dixon.
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