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Known as pretty, Villanova is gritty in knocking out Texas Tech to reach Final Four

Known as pretty, Villanova is gritty in knocking out Texas Tech to reach Final Four

Phil Booth leads Villanova’s celebration. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BOSTON — Villanova Coach Jay Wright shared a moment with the Rev. Rob Hagan, the team’s chaplain, on the TD Garden court after Sunday’s 71-59 win over Texas Tech. Wright told Hagan he felt blessed. By that point existential questions were creeping in. “Why me?” Wright repeatedly asked himself as his team celebrated their second trip to the Final Four in three years, a perfectly logical question befit for a tournament that already features a beloved 98-year-old nun and has been anything but chalk.

Part of the answer could be found in the 44 three-pointers the top-seeded Wildcats had made in their first three NCAA tournament games, the most by any team in tournament history over that stretch. The other part could be traced back to a decision by Wright to revamp his team’s defense in early January. Villanova was not a good defensive team earlier in the season, he believed, but it could largely mask its deficiencies because it also boasted the country’s most powerful offense.

“We had to go back to the basics defensively,” Wright said. “We were afraid that we might run out of time.”

The Wildcats’ clock kept ticking after Sunday’s East Region final even thought Villanova played its worst offensive game of the year. The Wildcats shot just 33 percent from the field, their lowest mark since 2015, and it hit just 4 of 24 three-pointers. When Villanova’s players ran back to huddle with Wright during a timeout with 11:35 remaining, they had missed nine of their previous 10 shots and had not scored in nearly three minutes. They had committed nine turnovers, one shy of their season average, and their stars, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, had combined for just 15 points on 14 shots. Yet they led by 11 points and seemed comfortably in control.

The Wildcats (34-4) were shouting out defensive switches and sprinting to close out on every Texas Tech shooter, keeping the Red Raiders at 33 percent (20 for 60) from the field on the day. Villanova dictated pace at the other end with 20 offensive rebounds, which helped lead to 29 made free throws on 35 attempts.

In the end, Villanova won its 134th game over the past four seasons — surpassing the Duke teams from 1997 to 2001 for the most in NCAA history — with a performance that might not have been possible in January or February.

“It means a lot to us, just that we tough a game out like that,” said forward Eric Paschall, who finished with 12 points and 14 of Villanova’s 51 rebounds, 18 more than the Red Raiders.

Texas Tech pulled within five points on three occasions late in the second half; one of those appeared to be a prime chance to cut it to three. But when guard Keenan Evans threaded the needle with the pass in the lane to an open Zhaire Smith with just more than five minutes remaining, Paschall swooped in for a block that led to a layup in transition. On the next possession, after Texas Tech responded with a bucket and as Villanova faced a dwindling shot clock, Wildcats guard Donte DiVincenzo cleaned up a Bridges miss with a putback dunk.

Texas Tech reached the Elite Eight for the first time largely because it had cultivated one of the country’s deepest rotation — with seven players averaging five points and three rebounds or more — and a defensive efficiency that entered the day ranked fourth in the country. It lived up to the billing for long stretches, with the Red Raiders disrupting an offense that had hung 90 points on hard-nosed West Virginia in Friday night’s regional semifinals.

Villanova trailed by eight early. Brunson missed his first five shots. Bridges looked bothered by Texas Tech’s length and athleticism and picked up two early fouls, as did talented freshman Omari Spellman.

Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard, whose eccentricities and bold personality had made him a one-of-a-kind interview during the NCAA tournament, seemed content with his team following a blueprint that so many others had in previous meetings against Villanova — particularly in ordering long and methodical possessions that would drain the clock and keep the potent Wildcats from turning the game into a shootout. For a while, it seemed to work.

But Villanova didn’t allow the pace to be dictated even as it stumbled through its worst offensive performance of the postseason. Defense and rebounding helped spark a 7-0 run over the final 3:01 of the first half to take a 13-point advantage into the locker room.

“If shots aren’t falling for us, we try to make sure that’s not affecting us,” Brunson said.

The final offensive statistical lines for the Wildcats were forgettable. Brunson finished with 15 points on 14 shots, Bridges had 12 on 10 shots, Paschall and DiVincenzo each finished with 12 even though they combined for 18 shots. But the Wildcats made stops and sank free throws down the stretch, finishing 29 for 35 from the line, compared to Texas Tech’s 14 for 18.

And Brunson made one final play befitting a candidate for national player of the year. With Texas Tech trailing by six and in desperate need of a stop with just less than two minutes remaining, Brunson veered into the lane with the ball to get to his favorite post-up spot. Then he backed down his defender — “It was like watching Magic Johnson back down,” Beard said — and Brunson used his body to finish a contested, off-balance layup that finally killed the Red Raiders.

“You’re kind of saying, why us? And just soaking it in,” Wright said afterward, before attempting to answer with a laugh. “It’s always talented players. It really is.”

Friday’s Elite Eight coverage:

Ramble On: Loyola Chicago beats Kansas State to reach Final Four

Michigan grinds out victory as FSU’s Hamilton makes puzzling concession

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In-game updates:

Villanova Coach Jay Wright was, well, right.

He’d predicted a tough second half and Texas Tech did indeed make a run at the Wildcats, closing within 59-53 with just under two minutes left.

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It wasn’t how Villanova wanted to start things. Texas Tech jumped out to a 9-1 lead, the largest deficit Villanova had faced in the tournament, but Villanova wasn’t fazed by the start Sunday afternoon in Boston.

Thanks to a 20-6 run, the No. 1-seeded Wildcats led the No. 3 Red Raiders 21-15 and, despite shooting poorly from three-point land, they led by 20 points with a minute left and by 36-23 at halftime. That’s a season-low in first-half points for Tech and as for Villanova, well, it’s what the team has done for quite some seasons now.

Coach Jay Wright told CBS that his team’s lead was attributable to “really solid team defense. We can’t play them one on one,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve got to be prepared for a tough second half.”

Tech’s leading scorer, Keenan Evans, was scoreless through the first 11 minutes and was 0-3 from the field. After 12 minutes, Tech had used 10 players and three had two fouls each. Villanova was in the double bonus and had shot 12 free throws.

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Texas Tech fans, whose team was playing in the Elite Eight for the first time in its history, were nothing if not confident before tipoff.

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Pregame reading:

BOSTON — Texas Tech’s players started the “300 Shot Club” earlier this season, believing they needed something official to improve their offense. Most of the Red Raiders are members, which requires that they spend time every day making at least 300 game shots before or after practice.

It has helped — Texas Tech averages 75 points per game and has perhaps the deepest offensive roster in all of college basketball; it has voluminous scorers in Keenan Evans (17.7 points per game), Zhaire Smith (11.3) and Jarrett Culver (11.2), but it also has five other players who average five points or more. They have all grown together through their work in 300 Shot Club.

“It’s just something that we believe in,” Evans said. “It helps us get in the gym, and we just want to get at least 300 makes of game shots in, whether it be pullups, free throws, little floaters, little post moves. It’s basically what game shots you take, you go in there and work on it, so you just take it with confidence. And it helps the team to have confidence in those shots knowing that you put the work in to do it.”

Texas Tech will need that confidence to translate in Sunday’s East Region Final against top-seeded Villanova, which has the most efficient and explosive offense in the country. The Red Raiders have talked most of this week about their revival on defense, and rightly so — they rank fourth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency at 91.2, per kenpom.com — but they also know that they’re going to have hit shots and perhaps score more than 80 points to outlast the Wildcats.

“In our eyes, we’re going to have to play our best 40 minutes of the season to advance,” Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard said, “and that’s our objective.”

Schedule: No. 1 seed Villanova (33-4) and No. 3 seed Texas Tech (27-9) will tip off at 2:20 p.m. Sunday on CBS.

How Villanova got here:

  • The Wildcats smashed No. 16 seed Radford in the opening round, hitting 14 three-pointers in a blowout 87-61 win. Villanova led by 21 points at halftime and was never challenged.
  • The second round was barely more dramatic, a comfortable 81-58 win over No. 9 seed Alabama. That equaled the Crimson Tide’s worst-ever loss in tournament history, and put Villanova into its sixth Sweet 16 under Coach Jay Wright.
  • Villanova kept shooting it in a 90-78 win over No. 5 seed West Virginia, making 13 more three-pointers. That gave the Wildcats 44 in three tournament games, and put them in the Elite Eight for the second time in three years. Wright said his team showed no fear in the win, and The Post’s John Feinstein thought the performance boiled down to one word: grit.

How Texas Tech got here:

  • The Red Raiders struggled in the first round but surged late in a 70-60 win over No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin. They had trailed by as many as eight points in the second half, but persisted to earn their first NCAA tournament win since 2005.
  • Keenan Evans came up big again in the second round, hitting a tie-breaking three-pointer late in the second half to key a 69-66 win over No. 6 seed Florida.
  • The Red Raiders knocked off No. 2 seed Purdue, 78-65, Friday night to reach their first Elite Eight in program history. Evans again shined in the second half, when an 11-0 Texas Tech run finally created separation. The win shined a spotlight on quirky coach Chris Beard, who blasts Merle Haggard music before practice, talks about Whataburger and has the Red Raiders loose and confident.

Regular season results:

In a season of tournament upstarts, Villanova is the opposite: the Wildcats started the season 13-0 and 22-1, although their streak of four straight regular-season Big East titles was interrupted by Xavier. Villanova still finished the regular season with a 27-4 mark, and went 14-4 in league play. The Wildcats had the highest-scoring offense in the country, ranked in the top four in three-pointers-made-per-game, and won the Big East tournament to claim a No. 1 seed. Jalen Brunson was named the conference’s player of the year, Omari Spellman was the freshman of the year, Donte DiVincenzo was the sixth man of the year, and Mikal Bridges was also named first-team all-conference.

Texas Tech got off to a 14-1 start, and stayed hot in the Big 12 season, winning 10 of its first 13 league games. A late-season four-game losing streak sent the Red Raiders into the postseason with a 23-8 record, and an 11-7 league mark. That was the team’s most regular-season wins since 1996. Texas Tech lost in the Big 12 tournament semifinals to fellow Elite Eight participant West Virginia, and was given a No. 3 seed in this tournament. Beard tied for the league’s coach of the year award, and Evans was chosen first-team all-Big 12, the first Texas Tech player to receive that honor in more than a decade.

More NCAA tournament coverage:

Leonard Hamilton mismanages the final minute as Michigan grinds past Florida State

Ramble On: Loyola Chicago beats Kansas State to reach Final Four

Only three 11-seeds had ever made a Final Four. Make room for Loyola Chicago.

NCAA broadcasts feed on the tears of young children, and critics have had enough

Jenkins: The secret to buzzer-beaters? It’s all in the (mental) release

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