Ryan Arcidiacono received the biggest birthday present of his life on Saturday night – a trip to the Final Four.
On his 22nd birthday, Villanova beat top overall seed Kansas 64-59, securing an exclusive spot to play in Houston next weekend.
“This is just a total team effort and it was everything that I dreamed of,” Arcidiacono said. “It was probably the best birthday I’ve had in my life.”
Arcidiacono, who has bled blue and white ever since he was young, helped take the Wildcats to their first Final Four since 2009.
He witnessed Scottie Reynolds go coast-to-coast and sink his last second playoffs to send Villanova to the Final Four.
Back then, Arcidiacono was like any young hooper trying to make a name for himself. He was playing in an AAU tournament in New York, as the Wildcats were clawing their way to a gutsy finish in Boston.
“I remember watching the game and we hit the shot,” he said. “I remember I was running and jumping up and down in the hotel hallway and getting noise complaints.”
Now, he was living the dream.
Arcidiacono scored a team-high 13 points, as did fellow teammates Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins.
However, the biggest play committed by the senior point guard came on the defensive end.
The game had been a back-and-forth affair all throughout, with neither team able to pull away.
With a one point advantage over Kansas, Jenkins proceeded to sink two clutch free throws as the clock began to wind down.
Clinging onto a narrow 62-59 lead with 13.1 seconds remaining in the game, the Jayhawks had a chance to tie it coming down the stretch.
The senior point guard dislodged the ball from Frank Mason III‘s hands, as he attempted to drive inside. The ball spilled onto the floor. Mikal Bridges dove on the loose ball ala Dwayne McClain in 1985 and promptly called time out to give Villanova possession with 4.6 seconds to go.
“Coach has told us to do like a pitch-back play, and I didn’t execute that well,” Mason III said. “I kind of picked my dribble up, was expecting Svi [Mykhailiuk] to come for a handoff, but he faked backdoor, and I think one of the players got his hand in. That caused the turnover.”
On the following inbounds pass, the ball was delivered to Jalen Brunson. The freshman guard knocked down a pair of free throws from the charity stripe to seal the game.
“I just walked up to the line knowing that I practice these all the time,” Brunson said. “I put pressure on myself in practice. Obviously, the atmosphere is a little different, but I just kept the same focus and the same mentality.”
Despite the fact that Villanova had been using a glamorous display of shooting on the court to get to the Elite Eight, it was prepared to make the game ugly.
The Wildcats shot a tournament-best 33-of-62 (53.2 percent) from beyond the arc through the first three games.
In Saturday’s game, they had their worst performance thus far, only making 4-of-18 (22.2 percent) of their long range attempts. They found other ways to make up for it, turning to a blue-collar, gritty, and tenacious style of play.
“We came into this game knowing that we’re both teams that were on great offensive runs and for us in our program, we don’t depend on our offense,” Villanova forward Daniel Ochefu said. “Making the game ugly and a street fight was to our advantage because that’s what we preach every day in practice.”
Ochefu, along with other Villanova forwards, had the tall task of defending Kansas’ leading scorer Perry Ellis, who had scored at least 20 points in each of the tournament games entering Saturday.
It was the Villanova front court that got the best of Ellis, holding him to only four points off of 1-of-5 shooting on the floor.
“They focused on him,” Kansas point guard Wayne Selden Jr. said. “You could tell their game plan was to try to really bother him. They were just doubling down. They were really diving hard on him.”
The same couldn’t be said for the triumvirate of Kansas guards – Devonte’ Graham, Selden Jr., and Mason III.
Graham scored a game-high 17 points and was the only one to get it going from long range, as he knocked down 5-of-9 from deep. Selden Jr. and Mason III had 16 each.
With the South Region behind the Wildcats, they will turn their focus to the Oklahoma Sooners next weekend.
Oklahoma had beaten Villanova earlier in the season, restricting the ‘Cats to a 4-of-32 performance from beyond the arc en route to a lopsided 78-55 win.
This time around, the Wildcats don’t expect to see the same result.
“I think the first time we played them we had a lot of young guys coming in that didn’t know what we were completely about yet – the game was not ugly at all,” Ochefu said. “Throughout the course of the year, we’ve grown a lot, and Buddy Hield is an amazing player, Oklahoma is an extremely well-coached team with great players. It’s going to be a battle.”
However, you can expect one thing.
“We take it upon ourselves to make the game extremely ugly.”