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Kansas passes Villanova to advance to NCAA Finals

NEW ORLEANS — When Kansas coach Bill Self sat down for the past few days to watch the footage of his final trip to the Final Four, he couldn’t bear to watch more than 12 minutes. It’s easy to imagine his gut knotting up, his palms getting sweaty and his head starting to spin.

“I have twitches every time I think about it,” Self said of the 2018 semifinal in which the highlights may have ended well after Kansas scored the first field goal. . The match turned into a convincing loss to Villanova, who would go on to win the national championship.

Self and a handful of players quietly took that whiplash — their second consecutive Final Four loss to Villanova — and made sure it didn’t happen against Saturday, taking an early lead and pushing the Wildcats back down the stretch for an 81- 65 win.

Kansas will face the winner of Saturday night’s other semifinal between North Carolina and Duke on Monday night, allowing them to overcome another memory – losing their last championship game, in the same Superdome ten years 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 23 points by center David McCormack. Together, the two Kansas anchors made 15 of 18 shots.

And they must have been so good.

Villanova, playing without Justin Moore, who ruptured his Achilles tendon last week, tried to come back from an early 19-point deficit, but his guarding triumvirate – Collin Gillespie, Brandon Slater and native Caleb Daniels of New Orleans – didn’t quite have enough.

The Wildcats tied 64-58 on Jermaine Samuels’ 3-point play but couldn’t get closer. When Christian Braun hit a 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring, it gave Kansas a 71-59 lead and nearly spelled the end.

It was hard to imagine a worse start for Villanova.

Kansas scored the first 10 points, Villanova turned the ball over on four straight possessions, and Agbaji was on fire, making his first four shots, all 3-pointers. When Agbaji broke through Villanova’s defense and gave McCormack for a crushing dunk, Kansas had pushed their lead to 26-11 just over 10 minutes into the game, prompting a timeout from Villanova.

For Agbaji to play such a pivotal role was hard to see coming when he arrived at Lawrence five years ago. He was one of Kansas City’s best players and an excellent student, but he didn’t even start for his Amateur Athletic Union team, MoKan Elite, and so he came to Lawrence as someone the coaches hoped to be. a good teammate and grow. into a role player.

Instead, he transformed into something much more – an athletic wing with a lethal jump shot who was Player of the Year in the Big 12, the nation’s most competitive conference in recent times. seasons, and a first All-America team.

Agbaji on Saturday night was the pivot of a Kansas offense that swirled and cut, the sound of sneakers constantly squeaking on the Superdome floor as the ball sped around the perimeter, relegating one of the most determined defenses in the country. chasing the ball.

Complementing Agbaji on the perimeter was McCormack, the senior heavyweight center who sometimes found himself on the wrong side of defensive shifts, but that night there was a force inside against Villanova center Eric Dixon and the Wildcats’ thin frontcourt.

When McCormack threw a dunk at Samuels midway through the second half, he let out a roar and celebrated so fiercely – slapping himself on the head – that an official warned him as he walked down the court for the cool.

It was just the latest test of Villanova’s tenacity and solidarity this season.

In the final seconds of the Southern Region Finals victory over Houston, Moore, a junior guard, ruptured his Achilles tendon. In a flash, the Wildcats had lost their best defenseman, a vital ball handler, a fearless shooter and a fierce leader. As the Wildcats celebrated their win, they only did so after rallying around Moore who had a towel draped over his head on the team bench.

Villanova’s tight rotation had already been reduced 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 any solace for the Wildcats, it’s their familiarity with running a shorthanded 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 Round of 16 where they edged eventual champion Baylor midway through the second half before fading.

Wright said he was watching a movie on Monday and figuring out who would replace Moore on out-of-bounds play and the press break infraction when he called Gillespie to ask if he should address the team at about Moore’s absence.

“No way,” Gillespie told him. “Everyone is good. Do not worry.

The way Saturday night went, maybe he should have.


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