SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Go to enough Villanova news conferences and it becomes evident very quickly that coach Jay Wright preaches certain things, day in and day out. It's almost a robotic, formulaic answer from Wildcats players: Attitude. Villanova basketball.
Villanova rarely strays from its principles, and it has led them back to a familiar place for the Wildcats -- they're headed to their third Final Four in the past six NCAA tournaments, with a chance to win their third national championship over that same stretch.
In a grind-it-out affair at the AT&T Center on Saturday night, 2-seed Villanova got out to an early lead over 5-seed Houston, never trailed and pulled away in the final minutes for a 50-44 win.
Villanova shot just 28.8% (15-for-52) from the field, making it the first team to win an Elite Eight game while shooting under 30% from the floor since UCLA in 1971 (29%), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Wildcats' 50 points were also tied for the fewest ever in an Elite Eight win.
"If you had told me before the game that we're going to hold them to 28% from the field, they're going to shoot 23% from the 3-point line, and we'd lose, I wouldn't have believed you," said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose Cougars also struggled from the field, shooting 29.8% (17-for-57). "I knew it was going to take a good team to beat us. And a good team did. I thought that was two great cultures out there tonight."
Jermaine Samuels led the way for the Wildcats with 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Caleb Daniels came off the bench to score 12 points. Taze Moore was the top scorer for Houston, going for 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Houston had landed the first punch against every team it had played in the NCAA tournament until this point. The Cougars were up 31-14 on UAB after 10 minutes, 16-9 on Illinois and 19-12 against Arizona.
Wright expected more of the same when asked on Friday afternoon how he planned to prepare his team for Houston's intensity and physicality from the opening tip.
"We're going to take a little smack in the mouth," Wright said. "We'll have to get a feel for it and then adjust as soon as we can."
There was no adjustment needed.
The Wildcats landed the opening salvo, scoring the first five points and leading 16-8 after 10 minutes. They never trailed.
"Villanova was the aggressor in the first half," Sampson said.
"We just didn't come out aggressive, like Coach said," Houston forward Fabian White added. "There wasn't really nothing that shocked us. We just had to buckle down, really, on defense. They scored their first two points pretty easily."
Houston has built a reputation under Sampson for taking teams out of their comfort zone on the offensive end, but that's exactly what Villanova did to the Cougars in the first half. The Wildcats constantly switched ball-screens and dribble hand-offs, not allowing Houston to get downhill off the dribble. The Cougars were forced to start their defense further out, and their jumpers weren't falling like they had in the first three games of the NCAA tournament.
They took five 3-pointers in the first seven minutes of the game before becoming more aggressive off the dribble. But early on, Villanova wouldn't let Houston win where it likes to win: on the offensive glass and in transition. The Cougars are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country and also excel at forcing turnovers and getting points in transition.
Through the first 17 minutes, Houston had just one offensive rebound and forced just two turnovers, neither of which were live-ball turnovers. Villanova was forcing Houston to work for everything offensively and then making the Cougars guard for 30 seconds at the other end.
Villanova was out-Houstoning Houston.
Or, if you prefer, Villanova was playing Villanova basketball.
Even though shots weren't falling, the Wildcats continued to stick to their fundamentals. They took care of the ball, they did their best to keep Houston off the glass, they allowed nothing in transition, they moved the ball effectively and utilized their usual assortment of pivots and pump-fakes to create space and get to the free throw line.
Attitude. Villanova basketball.
"We just have to stick together and say attitude," Wildcats guard Collin Gillespie said. "That's what we pride ourselves on, just playing hard for 40 minutes."
"We knew it was going to be a battle," he added. "They're well-coached, they play super hard on every possession. They go to the glass at both ends of the floor. That's something we talk about every time we step on the floor -- make sure we're playing hard and we're competing every possession. We take pride in that. Just making sure we play Villanova basketball every time we step on the floor."
Houston badly needed a run that failed to materialize for the first 30 minutes of the game. The Cougars are one of the best teams in the country at going on scoring runs to extend a lead or erase a deficit. Unfortunately for them, Villanova is even better at preventing runs.
According to EvanMiya.com, a website that tracks advanced college basketball statistics, Villanova is the joint-best power-conference team in the country at preventing sustained runs. Villanova has allowed 10-0 runs just six times all season, or 0.17 per game, according to the site.
The biggest run Houston managed all game was a 6-0 stretch that cut Villanova's lead to two with 5:25 remaining. For a team that had the third-most 10-0 runs in the country, it was crippling for its offense.
Every time Houston looked like it was gaining some momentum in front of the pro-Cougars crowd, Villanova responded. Daniels hit a pair of big shots midway through the first half after Houston finally found a rhythm offensively. Gillespie, who had just six points and didn't play well for much of the game thanks to Jamal Shead's elite defense, drew a foul well outside the 3-point line and hit two free throws late in the first half.
Daniels started the second half with another big shot, this time a 3 with 19:07 left. And then after Houston cut the lead to five early in the second half, Samuels drove to the lane, pump-faked two Cougars defenders and then finished the basket plus a foul.
"Having experienced guys playing in that environment like a true road game, them making a run, a really, really good team that you know can get on runs, and for them to keep their composure and get a couple stops, hit big shots like Collin did," Wright said. "Having veteran players is the key to that, guys that have been in that moment before."
Houston did come out with far more aggression in the second half, grabbing three offensive rebounds and scoring five second-chance points in the first four minutes. The Cougars were having success around the basket and getting stops defensively, but their outside shots wouldn't fall. They shot just 1-for-20 from 3-point range against Villanova after going 9-for-20 against Arizona on Thursday night.
"We had a lot of opportunities. They didn't go in," Sampson said. "That happens."
When Houston finally did go on a run -- an 11-2 spurt to cut Villanova's lead to two, the closest it had been since the opening tip-off -- it was the Wildcats' best player who came up with the big shot. Gillespie buried a contested jumper over J'Wan Roberts with 5:02 remaining, and Houston didn't score a point for the next four minutes.
A short Shead jumper in the lane cut Villanova's lead to four with 1:25 remaining, but Villanova responded immediately with a Samuels' layup through contact. Houston wasn't done yet, though. Kyler Edwards hit a pair of free throws, and then Roberts forced a jump-ball after Justin Moore slipped, appearing to suffer an injury to his lower right leg. But Taze Moore's layup on the ensuing possession rimmed out for Houston.
A pair of Gillespie free throws pushed the Villanova lead to six, and Houston wouldn't get any closer.
Villanova's celebrations at the final buzzer were muted, however, given Moore's potentially serious injury. He went to the locker room on crutches during the trophy ceremony, and Wright didn't sound optimistic about his availability moving forward.
Moore, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, is second on the team in points, third in rebounds and second in assists.
His potential absence will be a storyline all week in New Orleans, but for now, the Wildcats are celebrating yet another chance at cutting down nets.
"It feels great. It never gets old," Wright said of advancing to the Final Four. "It's the dream of every player and coach in college basketball. It's the ultimate. We're going to enjoy this tonight and tomorrow. [Then we're going to] rest up and get to work. We get to keep playing; that's what we enjoy the most."