Not So Sweet 16: Wildcats Fall in Regional Semis

Brandon Slater became the leading contender for Dunk of the Tournament with this effort late in the second half against Baylor.

Villanova’s postseason run came to a premature end after falling 62-51 to Baylor in the Sweet 16. After breezing by Winthrop and North Texas in the first two rounds, Villanova collided with the toughest team they have played all season in the Bears. The two-loss Baylor team emerged from the game with an 11-point victory, but that margin understated the monumental Wildcat effort.

Jermaine Samuels led the way for Villanova with 16 points and four rebounds. Sophomore guard Justin Moore managed 15 points, five rebounds and three assists against one of the stingiest backcourts in the country.

Adam Flagler topped all scorers for the Bears with 16 points, including two three-pointers. Davion Mitchell added 14 to guide Baylor into the Elite Eight.

From the tip, grueling effort and physicality personified a game that seemed more like a fight than a competition between basketball teams. Many tagged Baylor as a team that could dominate early, and the Bears jumped to a seven-point lead following a Jared Butler three-pointer. The Wildcats responded with a 13-0 run to take a six-point lead toward the end of the first half, inching to a 30-23 halftime margin.

Villanova’s first-half performance against Baylor was one of their best all season. The team connected on half of their shots, but the defensive effort set the ‘Cats apart. Every Wildcat defender locked in on every defensive position with an indomitable energy Baylor struggled to cope with during the opening period. That energy spread throughout the team with injured senior Colin Gillespie cheering from the stands. Every possession seemed life or death, every rebound a physical scrap, and every loose ball a golden opportunity to grapple control of the game.  

The Bears made only two of their 12 attempts (16.7%) from beyond the arc despite touting the best three-point percentage in the country. Although three-point defense is subject to luck, the Wildcats smothered the Baylor shooters on every possession. Jay Wright crafted a defensive strategy that stumped his opposition in the first half, only confirming his expertise to a national audience.

The Bears switched gears in the second, where Scott Drew adjusted the team’s gameplan after a poor first half. Villanova tried desperately to maintain their lead, but Mitchell began slicing through the Wildcat defense with ease. The Bears overcame the deficit halfway through the second half, and the ‘Cats could not muster a worthy comeback attempt down the stretch.

Baylor’s defense grew tougher and tougher throughout the game, forcing Villanova into too many turnovers in the second half. As the Bears cut into the Wildcat lead, Wright’s team began hemorrhaging possession after possession off of mistakes from a team clearly missing their starting point guard. Gillespie’s absence became most apparent during the second half, and the Wildcat offense stalled at points as Baylor’s grip tightened.

With this loss, Villanova enters a transitional period as the team faces major departures after the season. Seniors Gillespie and Samuels will likely be missed by the team next year, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s stellar tournament performance casts little doubt that he will hear his name called during the upcoming NBA Draft. 

Wright and the coaching staff will welcome four new freshmen into the team, including Trey Patterson who joined the ‘Cats this semester. The Wildcats will need players to step up and fill the void left behind from departing players. Robinson-Earl and Gillespie were leaders on the court and in the locker room, and will be sorely missed. Moore, Brandon Slater, Cole Swider and Caleb Daniels will need to take on more vocal roles in the team as well as higher usage positions on the court. Each is a prime candidate to shoulder more responsibility for next year’s installment of Villanova basketball.

With their season coming to a close, Villanova performed valiantly in a tournament many predicted they would leave during the first weekend. Gillespie’s injury imposed a ceiling on the team’s tournament hopes, but the effort against Baylor confirmed to any viewer that one player alone does not make a Villanova basketball team. The Wildcats enter the offseason in limbo, but there should be little doubt they will emerge as a contender next season.