Michigan’s Zavier Simpson caught a quick pass, took a dribble to the rim and went up for what should’ve been an easy layup.
That’s when Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo come flying in from behind to stuff the layup into the side of the rim and force a possession-changing jump ball.
On this night, with a national championship on the line, it was a fitting reminder that this Wildcats team is more than just a remarkably good 3-point shooting team. It was a tournament-tested group capable of winning in a variety of ways — and in Monday’s 79-62 win against Michigan, it was just as much about Villanova’s strong defensive finish to the first half and its rebounding as it was about that oh-so-good offense from the entire season.
By the end, the Wildcats who spent part of the year making coach Jay Wright wonder if they were going to just try to outscore everybody was long gone.
“We love it that way,” redshirt junior Mikal Bridges said. “We love just going out there and grinding it out as a defensive team, and keep getting stops. That’s the best thing. I’m so proud.”
Villanova (36-4) entered the game atop KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency at 127.6 points per 100 possessions. That was better than any team on other than Wisconsin in 2015 (129.0) dating all the way back to the 2002 season. And the game-ending numbers Monday didn’t look all too unusual: 47 percent and 10 of 27 from 3-point range.
But early, as Villanova sputtered and started 1 for 9 from behind the arc, the defense — along with the start of DiVincenzo’s 31-point barrage that made him the Final Four’s most outstanding player — got things turned around.
After the Wolverines started the game 8 for 12, Villanova held Michigan to 3-for-16 shooting for the final 11 minutes of the half as the Wildcats dug out from an early 21-14 deficit to lead 37-28 by the break. That included a stretch of seven straight misses, followed by the Wolverines missing their last six shots of the half — one of those being DiVincenzo’s soaring-in block of Simpson.
“We just played a little bit more aggressive,” Bridges said, “not worrying about somebody scoring on you.”
That was particularly true of the Wildcats’ work on 6-foot-11 matchup headache Moe Wagner, who had nine points in the first 5 minutes but manages just two points the rest of the half. Wagner also saw different looks from the 6-7 Bridges, Villanova’s bigs and even point guard and AP national player of the year Jalen Brunson on some possessions.
“You know, they were switching every screen, everything that we did for a good part of the game, and they changed just enough to confuse us a little bit,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “The shot clock got to us a couple of times. And they … forced us into a one-on-one game.”
That bought time for the Wildcats offense to figure things out and get moving against Michigan’s tough defense, even if they came nowhere near duplicating that Final Four-record 18 3-pointers against Kansas from Saturday’s national semifinals.
Then there was the rebounding. The Wildcats finished with a 38-27 edge on the glass for the game, many of those coming to secure each defensive stop as they took over in those game-turning minutes before halftime.
Of course, the Wildcats had already proven they had it in them.
Look back to the Elite Eight, when Villanova shot just 33 percent and made 4 of 24 3-pointers against Texas Tech. That day it was about a tough-minded defensive effort that held the Red Raiders to 33 percent shooting and a dominating effort on the glass (51-33, including 20 offensive rebounds) to secure a trip to San Antonio.
The Wildcats did enough of both on Monday night to secure Wright’s second national championship in three seasons, and maybe get a little credit as more than just one of college basketball’s best offensive teams in recent memory.
“Honestly, if we get credit or not (for defense), it is what it is,” Brunson said. “We won a national championship. I think we had gotten so much defensively as the year ended.
“Obviously we had the ability to outscore people just how talented we are offensively. But when shots aren’t falling for us, like what are we going to do? Are we just going to say we didn’t make shots and that’s how we lost? Or are we going to grind it out and play defense?”