Nova defense stops Oklahoma sooner and later

By Art Spander

HOUSTON — It’s a team game. Sure, that’s the cliché of basketball, but it’s also the reality. Another reaffirmation came Saturday night in the Final Four.

Oklahoma had the Player of the Year, Buddy Hield. The man scores from everywhere. Or, as in the semifinal against Villanova, from nowhere. Hield did hit a three-pointer in the opening half-minute, giving everyone the impression he and the Sooners were on their way.

To oblivion, it turned out.

Villanova, shooting 77 percent in the second half, 17 of 22 from the field, and 71 percent for the game, got Oklahoma sooner and later, winning 95-51.

“I thought they popped us there in the first half, and we didn’t respond very well to that,” said OU coach Lon Kruger. “We came out with a little better fight to start the second half. Villanova withstood that, then popped us again.”

And hard. But that’s nothing new for Villanova, the school in the tony suburbs of Philadelphia’s Main Line. It was virtually a repeat performance for Nova, using the term loosely, unlike the defense Villanova plays. No looseness there.

Thirty-one years ago, 1985, in the NCAA final, the Wildcats made 17 of 28 shots, nine of 10 in the second half, and upset Georgetown.

In this final, Monday against North Carolina, which defeated Syracuse in the other semi, Nova also will be an underdog. That might mean something. Or mean zilch.

“They made shots, and we didn’t,” said Oklahoma guard Isaiah Cousins, and could a result be described more simply than that?

“Everything just fell apart, even when we got stops.”

What stopped was Oklahoma’s intensity. They’d miss — the Sooners shot a pathetic 31 percent, 19 of 60, and Hield had nine points, one of eight on threes — and then Villanova would sweep down the court. It was a classic example of what coaches have been teaching forever: defense sets up the offense.

“We were just trying to find a rhythm how to stop them,” said Hield. “I feel early in the second half we got a rhythm. After that, missed a rebound, (Josh) Hart got it up, got a three-point play, momentum went back their way. They played really well today. One of the best teams I ever played in college.

“They made it tough on me, throwing a bunch of bodies at me. Just couldn’t get it going.”

Brilliant strategy by Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose Cats are now 34-5. Brilliant execution from the “bodies,” particularly Hart, Kris Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono.

Hield is from the Bahamas, a senior who chose to stay four years in the hope of winning an NCAA championship. That can never be, but at least he made it to the sport’s last weekend. Now he’ll end up with on the NBA’s last-place teams, perhaps the awful 76ers. The Philly nightmare may continue, if in a different way.

“Villanova dictated everything,” said Kruger, the OU coach. “They were up into us the first half. We didn’t rip it strong and attack. We were playing laterally instead of downhill.”

Instead of going to the basket, but how can you go when there are defenders everywhere you look?

Asked if he’d ever seen a game like this, Kruger philosophized. “Oh, it’s happened, I’m sure,” he said, “but I don’t like being a part of it ... You’d like to think you can stand up and change that. We weren’t able to.”

Villanova was prepared, yet preparation doesn’t always mean success. Every time the Golden State Warriors play, the other team is prepared to stop Stephen Curry. But it’s rare when the plans work. They definitely worked for Villanova against Hield, who had averaged 29 points in the four tournament games leading to the semi.

“We were watching film on how good Buddy is,” said Arcidiacono, “We knew he would take and make tough shots. We tried to keep fresh bodies on him, tried to make him take tough, contested shots. If just happened he didn’t make them tonight.”

It just happened that Villanova, with Hart scoring 23 points, on 10 of 12, did make them.

“I’m happy,” said Wright, the Nova coach, “we had one of those games where we just make every shot. Kind of similar to our (December) game in Hawaii against Oklahoma. They made everything, we made nothing.”

There was difference, a huge difference. This one was to make the national finals.

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