In face of adversity, Villanova’s composure shines against Kansas – Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This looked bad.

Kansas had just scored nine straight points to take its biggest lead of the game at 45-40 with about 10½ minutes left in its NCAA Tournament South Regional championship game.

Villanova trailed the No. 1 team in the country by five points, its leading scorer over the last two months was on the bench with four fouls, its magical shooting touch had disappeared, Kansas was already one foul away from the bonus and about 12,000 Kansas fans were screaming and singing that KU “I’m a Jayhawk” fight song during every timeout.

The momentum sure seemed to be swinging in Kansas’ favor as the second-half clock ticked down and the prospects of a second Final Four in eight years appeared to be slipping away from the Wildcats.

As Ryan Arcidiacono brought the ball upcourt with the season on the line in the raucous KFC Yum! Center, you could see a couple guys on the bench yell one word to the five Wildcats on the court.

“They were yelling, ‘Attitude,’” junior forward Josh Hart said. “Attitude. That’s what we say to each other when things are going bad to remind us to forget about whatever just happened and just keep fighting and keep battling.

“That’s what this team is built on. Attitude. We say it all the time. We have wristbands that say it. It’s what this program’s built on. It’s attitude. No matter what situation you’re in, no matter what position you’re in, you’re going to be OK.”

Villanova has done this all year. Played with absolute composure and calmness even in the most difficult times.

We didn’t see it the first three games of the NCAA Tournament, which it won by an average of 24 points.

But Saturday night, when Villanova desperately needed it, there it was. When Kansas built that five-point lead, the Wildcats simply kept playing hard, smart and loose. There was no sign of panic, no sign of tension, no sign that the moment was too big for them.

“In practice, coach (Jay Wright) puts us in the most difficult situations, so when we’re not getting calls, when we’re not making shots, we’ve been through that, we’ve practiced that situation, and we’re ready for it,” freshman guard Jalen Brunson said.

“We always have to keep a positive attitude and learn from our mistakes. The atmosphere’s not the same (as an NCAA Tournament game), but our mindset is. We’re playing for each other. It’s what we’ve done all year. It’s what they’ve always done here.

“I stepped in knowing that’s the way it is here and it was something I wanted to be a part of.”

Where does that sense of calm in the face of seeming craziness come from?

“I think it comes right from Daniel (Ochefu) and Arch,” Wright said. “When your leaders keep their cool, the young guys can just follow.

“But it’s interesting — the two guys who have to really work at keeping their emotions in check are the juniors, Kris (Jenkins) and Josh (Hart). But our freshmen are great at it. Jalen (Brunson) and Mikal (Bridges) are unbelievable that way. You just don’t see them getting flustered.”

Villanova, 33-5, earned a berth in the Final Four Saturday with a 64-59 win over top-ranked and top-seeded Kansas in the South Regional title game at the KFC Yum! Center (see game story).

After Kansas took that 45-40 lead, Villanova turned the defensive screws even tighter and held Kansas to just five baskets the rest of the game.

With ‘Nova’s shots from three not falling, it was that ferocious defense that fueled the Wildcats’ offense and sparked a 10-0 run that restored order.

“We practice all those situations,” Wright said. “We practice what happens when we turn the ball over down the stretch. We practice what happens if we miss foul shots. We practice how are we going to react when things aren’t going our way. So when we get into a game, these guys know how to respond to it.

“We focus on the next play. The next possession. Whatever adversity there is, whatever run (the other team went on), we’ve already moved on and we’re not dwelling on it.”

You don’t get to 33-6, a Final Four and a win over the No. 1 team in the country without being able to deal with adversity.

“We practice the most difficult situations,” Arcidiacono said. “Any time we turn the ball over in practice, the other team gets five points. We’re used to coming back and battling and making it ugly. It’s a mentality about this program (with) each guy on this team.

“We’re experienced. We’ve been in those situations before. It comes from the coaching staff. Starts with coach Wright. No one gets flustered when we get down. We stay committed to what we know.”

Villanova committed only 16 turnovers against two top-10 teams in its two South Regional games in Louisville and made 36 of 38 foul shots.

Talk about playing with composure.

“We’re so connected and we’re so together,” Jenkins said. “A team goes on a run, we get more connected, we come together more, we play harder, we focus on defense and key stops and that fuels our offense.”

And it makes the Wildcats very difficult to beat.

“We have so much confidence in each other on the defensive end that we’re going to make plays,” Hart said. “Like Mikal Bridges made two huge steals in the last two minutes, and his effort was great, and we feed off that, and that’s what this team is made of.

“So we know when a team’s up we’re not going to be rattled. We’re just going to battle. We’re going to battle down to the last second, and we’ll see how it goes.”

In face of adversity, Villanova’s composure shines against Kansas – Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia