By Michael Grimm
You’ve all heard the reasons this year’s Villanova Wildcats aren’t NCAA title-worthy:
They lost their point guard Collin Gillespie on March 3.
Then Justin Moore, his replacement, dinged his ankle.
The Cats perimeter defense was too porous.
Well, then they beat Winthrop and last night made the Sweet 16 by beating North Texas State with Baylor standing in their way next weekend.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl scored 18 points, Jermaine Samuels Jr. had 15 and the Wildcats knocked down 15 3-pointers for an 84-61 victory.
The fifth-seeded Wildcats (18-6) move on to the Sweet 16 to face top-seeded Baylor.
Are the Wildcats on their way again?
“I hope so, man,” coach Jay Wright said with a laugh, referring to the 2016 and 2018 titles. “I don’t remember all those types of stats but I like when you guys bring them up.”
“I thought we were pretty good defensively, but it sure does help when the shots are going in,” Wright said.
With quick ball movement and excellent spacing, the Wildcats went 9 for 15 from 3-point range for in the first half and finished the first 20 minutes on a 34-6 run. And that was it for North Texas.
The older players on this Villanova team like Samuels were mostly little-used reserves on that 2018 championship team. In a way, this is their first trip to the Sweet 16.
“It’s surreal,” Samuels said.
A stifling defensive performance by the Mean Green got them into the second round, upsetting No. 4-seed Purdue for the first NCAA Tournament victory in school history.
Against Villanova, North Texas seemed to be a step behind the extra pass, scrambling to get a hand into the face of open shooters.
Villanova finished 15 for 30 from 3-point range, with Cole Swider (nine points) and Caleb Daniels (11 points) each hitting three. Eight different Wildcats hit from long range.
Hamlet scored 25 points on 8-of-16 shooting, but the rest of the Mean Green made only 13 field goals.
“We weren’t supposed to be here,” Hamlet said. “We came here and made it to the second round. That’s not something I came here to do. I came to win it all. (But) I have nothing to be mad about.”
Villanova came into the NCAA Tournament short-handed and searching for answers. The Wildcats lost point guard Collin Gillespie to a knee injury late in the season and dropped their first two games without him.
In the first round, Villanova picked it up on the defensive end, took care of the ball (six turnovers) and came away with a workmanlike victory while still shooting only 44% from the field.
In round two, it was vintage Villanova.
“They’ve been struggling from 3, but they weren’t struggling tonight,” North Texas coach Grant McCasland said. “They were sharp and tough and have that flow to them now. With the point guard being out, they’ve got games under their belt now and have their pace and they made it hard on us.”