UTSA’s Germany remains questionable for next week pending test results

UTSA center Jacob Germany remains questionable for next week’s first full-session, preseason practices pending results of medical tests, Roadrunners coach Steve Henson said Friday.

“Jacob’s just having some precautionary tests,” Henson said. “He got checked out this morning. Hoping to get the doctor to look at the results as soon as possible. Obviously we’d like to have that happen today. But I can’t guarantee it will.

“If not, hopefully (by) Monday morning. We’re as anxious to find out his status as anybody else because we start practice Monday (afternoon). So, that’s really all I have.”

Germany, a 6-foot-11 senior, sat out UTSA practices on Tuesday and Thursday. Henson characterized the setback as an illness, but he didn’t elaborate, saying only that it’s not believed to be Covid-related.

“He’s doing OK,” the coach said. “We just got to run some tests.”

Germany’s health question comes just as the Roadrunners prepare to ramp up preparation for the coming season.

Since the start of the fall semester in late August, players were on an eight-hour per week regimen, mixing weights and court time. Next week, preparation time increases to 20 hours per week.

In the past week, UTSA practiced Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. They were given the day off on Friday.

Henson said he likes the vibe around this year’s team.

“To this point, I’ve loved their focus, their energy, their eagerness to play the right way,” he said. “It’s just been very refereshing. This group likes being around each other. They like spending time together. They like spending time together in the gym.

“It’s a fun group to be around every day.”

As for the overall health of his team, a lot depends on the status of Germany, who led the Roadrunners last year with 15.2 points and 48.8 percent shooting. Also, 7.3 rebounds per game.

Seven-foot center Carlton Linguard, Jr., a transfer from Kansas State, won’t participate in workouts for the time being. The former Stevens High School standout is rehabilitating a knee injury.

Forward Aleu Aleu, knocked out with a knee injury last January during his first season at UTSA, has been one of the bright spots for Henson lately.

Aleu didn’t participate in contact work in the summer, but the multi-skilled 6-foot-8 forward now seems to be rounding into form.

“Aleu had good practices Tuesday and Thursday,” Henson said. “Looked like he’s feeling better. He ran today, so it was good to see him get some conditioning on turf.”

UTSA will have six weeks to prepare for the season. The Roadrunners will play an exhibition on Nov. 2 at home against Schreiner College. They’ll open the regular season at home on Nov. 7 against Trinity.

Germany’s status uncertain with full practices looming next week

Though UTSA center Jacob Germany was on the court and dressed out in his uniform for team pictures on Thursday afternoon, he was not on the floor for a workout later in the day.

He was on the sideline, seated at the scorer’s table, as the Roadrunners went through one of their final abbreviated practices before expanded-session, preseason drills commence on Monday.

Jacob Germany. UTSA men's basketball beat Rice 82-71 on Saturday, March 5, 2022, at the Convocation Center in the Roadrunners' final game of the regular season. The Conference USA Tournament starts Tuesday. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jacob Germany averaged 15.3 points per game and shot 48.8 percent from the field last season. – Photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA coach Steve Henson declined to elaborate on the nature of Germany’s setback or how long he might be out. The coach said he’d know more in coming days.

“He’s seeing the doctor tomorrow,” the coach said. “I don’t know if I’m at liberty to talk about what it is … I don’t know if he was out Monday? But he was definitely out Tuesday and today. He’s going to see the doctor tomorrow morning.

“Hopefully we’ll know by tomorrow afternoon whether he’s good to go on Monday.”

Germany, a senior, is the pillar around which the Roadrunners hope to rebuild in the wake of a 10-22 record a year ago.

Last season, the 6-foot-11 post from Oklahoma led the Roadrunners with 15.3 points on 48.8 percent shooting from the field. He also averaged 7.2 rebounds.

Despite the situation with Germany, Henson said he feels like the team has made good progress through the summer and the early fall workouts.

“Really good,” he said. “The fall felt a lot like the summer did. We want a new-ness. We want a freshness on Monday. They know that it gets a lot more real. It’s longer and more intense on Monday.

“But to this point, I’ve loved their focus, their energy, their eagerness to play the right way. It’s just been very refereshing. This group likes being around each other. They like spending time together. They like spending time together in the gym.

“It’s a fun group to be around every day.”

Full-session workouts

Since the first of June, the Roadrunners have been limited to eight hours a week, which has broken down to about four in the weight room and four on the floor. It’s also been that way for the past four weeks to start the fall semester.

On Monday, the allowable workload will increase to 20 hours a week, inclusive of weights, meetings, film sessions and practices. As a result, the Roadrunners will enter a phase next week in which they will hold 30 workouts over a 42-day stretch.

Game preparation

UTSA will host an exhibition game against Schreiner on Nov. 2. The regular-season opener follows on Nov. 7 at home against Trinity. UTSA will play a 31-game schedule, including 18 at home.

Sharing the ball

UTSA’s workout on Thursday afternoon featured some crisp passing. The ball moved well from the top, to the baseline, to the post and back out to the perimeter.

UTSA men's basketball player Japhet Medor at the Convocation Center on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. - photo by Joe Alexander

Florida native Japhet Medor is expected to play a major role for the Roadrunners at point guard. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Newcomer Japhet Medor initiated plays from the point guard position with precision. Christian Tucker also enjoyed a good day at the point. Medor, Tucker and veteran Erik Czumbel are expected to play the point this season.

Ball movement and shot selection will be critical to the team’s success.

“We’ve got several guys that can make plays,” Henson said. “But we’ve got willing passers. That’s a big part of it. With certain lineups, our spacing is pretty good. Some of those lineups, we’ve got multiple shooters out there.”

“Yeah, the ball movement has been good. About the only time it’s not is when the defense is keeping us from doing it. They want to move the ball. Japhet can set the table with that. He’s got the quickness to get in there and attract people.

“He’s capable of scoring a lot, but he’s a pass-first guy. (When) the point guard comes in with that mindset, it helps everybody.”

Newcomer John Buggs III is almost like a playmaker himself but, as a long-distance shooting specialist, he will play on the wing.

“We picture Japhet, Christian and Erik initiating the offense,” Henson said. “Now, you’re right. I love when we enter it to Buggs and let him make some plays. (Freshman) DJ (Richards) is a little more of a playmaker, too.”

“We need Buggs and we need DJ as three-point shooters, but they both have a good feel for (distributing). Buggs, coming off his knee injury (from last year, at Hill College), his explosiveness and quickness just continues to get better.

“He was that type of player in high school, where he could do some things off the dribble. His body is looking good. He’s getting quicker and more explosive.”

Camp standouts

Asked to point out players who have elevated their performances in the past week, Henson mentioned sophomores Lamin Sabally and Josh Farmer and senior Aleu Aleu.

“Lamin had three great practices in a row,” Henson said. “He was really good on (the final workout last week) and Monday and Tuesday. Josh has had his best stretch the last couple of weeks. And Aleu. Aleu’s been out with injury and some sickess, as well. But Tuesday and today, he was really good.

Lamin Sabally. UTSA men's basketball beat Rice 82-71 on Saturday, March 5, 2022, at the Convocation Center in the Roadrunners' final game of the regular season. The Conference USA Tournament starts Tuesday. - photo by Joe Alexander

Sophomore forward Lamin Sabally is pushing for an expanded role after averaging 12.3 minutes in 21 games last season. – Photo by Joe Alexander

“He hopped in and defensively was really getting after it. He was attacking. I’d say those three in recent days have been very good.”

Germany said last week that he thinks Farmer, a 6-9 sophomore, might have made the most improvement of any returning player from last year. Henson wouldn’t disagree.

“He had a very good summer,” Henson said. “He’s figuring out, he’s been figuring out what to eliminate. That’s been a big thing for him. You know, eliminate this play. Eliminate that pass. Eliminate that shot. That in itself has helped him, and he’s gotten better at his strengths.

“He’s handling the ball better. He’s cleaner with the ball. Making simpler plays. You saw today, his athleticism and quickness … defensively, he’s flying around. Yeah, that’s fair to say, as far as the returners, he’s done a heck of a job.”

Injury updates

Seven-foot center Carlton Linguard, Jr., a junior transfer from Kansas State, is rehabilitating a knee injury and has some work to do to get himself fit enough to practice. Henson hasn’t put a timeline on when he can join the team on the practice floor.

Even then, Linguard also has some hurdles to clear on academics before he can play in a game, and the earliest he could play likely would be in the second semester. Linguard is attending practices, though the former Stevens High School standout has been limited to light shooting on his own and conditioning.

Aleu suffered a right knee injury last January and, consequently, was brought along slowly in the summer session workouts. By the end of August, he was cleared for contact as the team prepared to enter the fall semester.

Also about that time, freshman guard DJ Richards had his tonsils removed, but he is OK now. Both Aleu and Richards seem to be full strength now.

Spurs executive on campus

Henson met Thursday with longtime Spurs front office executive Joe Clark, who is the local NBA franchise’s vice president of youth sports and community engagement. Clark has been with the Spurs since 1985, according to the team’s website.

Asked if he’s collaborating with Clark on a youth sports project, Henson said, “We talked about a whole bunch of topics. How we can partner together a little bit. I think there’s some potential to do some things that would help both of us a lot. So, we’re excited about that.”

UTSA players have cooked up Sunday dinner, and also team chemistry, in the early going

By Jerry Briggs
Special to The JB Replay

Scenes of bodies banging in the paint, players muscling for position on the perimeter and hard-fought possessions that ended with the ball caroming off the rim probably outnumbered the jump shots that swished through the nets on Tuesday afternoon at UTSA.

In the fourth week of time-limited, early-fall semester workouts, Steve Henson’s Roadrunners clearly remain something of a work in progress.

Jacob Germany, UTSA beat Denver 78-64 in men's basketball on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jacob Germany emerged last season as one of the best offensive centers in Conference USA. – photo by Joe Alexander

One thing is certain, though. In the time that players on Henson’s seventh team at UTSA have been together since June, they have bonded well together. This semester, they’re practicing on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, congregating in study hall on Wednesdays, and then going back into workouts on Thursdays and Fridays.

On Saturday? They’re thinking like a lot of other UTSA students at this time of the year. “We’ll probably drive up to Austin (for the game against Texas) and tailgate a little bit,” said senior center Jacob Germany, who may also have something planned for Sunday, as well.

In weeks past, players have met at his apartment to talk over spiritual matters, not to mention chowing down on some of the 6-foot-11 Oklahoman’s finest culinary offerings. “We’ll have steak sandwiches, or spaghetti,” said Germany, who is the son of a chef and knows his way around the kitchen.

Last winter and spring, there were many days and nights when Germany didn’t look like he was having a whole lot of fun, and most of it likely stemmed from losing. Plagued with injuries, academic casualties and Covid-19 disruptions, the Roadrunners lost 22 games.

Germany enjoyed a fine season individually, averaging 15.2 points and 7.3 rebounds. Though he made only honorable mention all conference, it was easy to see that his offensive game was one of the most advanced — if not the most advanced — of anyone playing his position in the C-USA.

But not even on nights when he’d go for 20-point, double-doubles did he seem as if he was enjoying himself all that much. In contrast, his easy-going demeanor on Tuesday afternoon was telling. He smiled easily. He just seemed at peace as he surveyed the scene at the Convocation Center.

Isaiah Addo-Ankrah, a walk-on who won a scholarship over the summer, took shot after shot on one end of the floor. By himself, he kept firing away. On the other end, guard John Buggs III, a newcomer, was also doing a solo routine, pumping up jumpers after everyone else had repaired to the dressing room.

“Look at those guys, out here 45 minutes after, still working,” Germany said.

This time last year, UTSA’s team was just hard to analyze. The key players were Jordan Ivy-Curry, Dhieu Deing, Cedrick Alley and Germany. It wasn’t as good as the 2017- to 2021-era Roadrunners team that featured guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace.

But it looked to me as if it could be a unit that would at least win half its games. To me, it looked good enough on paper to come out of the regular season, perhaps in the middle of the pack, with a chance to get hot at the conference tournament. As everyone knows, though, the 2021-22 Roadrunners never got close to that level.

And from last year’s nucleus, only Germany remains. In some respects, that’s sort of a frightening prospect. If you lose Ivy-Curry, Deing and Alley, you lose scoring, rebounding and athleticism, for sure. But I’m not so sure that this new team, perhaps with less overall athleticism, doesn’t have the capability to be more successful.

Maybe much more so.

Why? For one thing, it’s got a pass-first point guard in Japhet Meador and a physical two-guard in Buggs. Neither is comparable to Ivy-Curry or Deing in athletic ability. But in skill level and savvy? From early indications, both have displayed solid individual talents that could, in turn, make it easier for talent around them to flourish.

On Tuesday afternoon, at least, two returning players that struggled for much of last year looked much more settled and improved. Senior guard Erik Czumbel had a really good practice. Six-foot-seven sophomore forward Lamin Sabally also shot the ball with authority.

In one sequence, he took a shorter defender down to the low post and scored over the top. In another, he pulled up and swished a couple from the perimeter. Forward Aleu Aleu, beset with injuries since he arrived last year, didn’t look great but I’ve always thought he could be major factor if he can get healthy and into top shape.

Germany, for his part, said he thinks 6-foot-9 sophomore Josh Farmer has made the most progress of any of the returning players.

The key to it all may be Meador, a Florida native. It’s arguable that UTSA hasn’t had a player with distribution skills like him since Giovanni De Nicolao, who turned pro in 2018. “Japhet is crazy good,” Germany said. “When he comes off screens, he sees everything. His vision is really good.”

Seeing the floor is one thing. Seeing into the future in college basketball is another. It’s not easy, particularly at the mid-major level, because there are so many variable. But at least in mid-September, the leading returning scorer on the Roadrunners has a good feeling that bonding and team-building over the past few months could make a difference next March.

“We’re a lot closer this year,” Germany said. “It’s kind of refreshing.”

Aston says freshman Sidney Love is in the mix to start at point guard for UTSA

Sidney Love at UTSA women's basketball practice at the Convocation Center on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. - photo by Joe Alexander

Sidney Love was the player of the year in the San Antonio area last season at Cibolo Steele High School. She averaged 23 points, nine rebounds and seven assists as a senior. – Photo by Joe Alexander

As Karen Aston moves into her second season as head coach in charge of the UTSA women’s basketball program, a compelling narrative has emerged during early practices for the Roadrunners.

A freshman could lead them.

Aston said Tuesday that freshman Sidney Love from Cibolo Steele High School is in the running to start at point guard.

Love is battling in early fall semester practices with senior Deborah Nwakamma, as well as with freshmen Madison Cockrell and Siena Guttadauro.

“I think right now Sid is the person that we’re going to lean on the most at that position,” Aston said. “I think Deb can play it also. Deb is probably more calm at that position right now and knows more what’s going on. But I would love to play her at the two.

“We just got to let Sid take her lumps and grow and learn the position. She’s doing a good job. I think she’ll get there.”

A long dry spell for the UTSA women’s basketball program could be nearing an end

Kyra White and Jordyn Jenkins

Kyra White (left) and Jordyn Jenkins have started fall workouts with the UTSA Roadrunners after transferring from Southern Cal. White played in high school locally at Judson. Jenkins, from Kent, Wash., received all-Pac 12 honors last season. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Driving cautiously from my home to the UTSA campus one morning last week, gray clouds hung low on the horizon as I splashed through puddles on the road during the first substantial downpour in San Antonio in several months.

Surprisingly enough, when I finally reached my destination at UTSA women’s basketball practice, the precipitation continued. As soon as a spirited five-on-five session began, different players started to rain shots from all over the place.

Coach Karen Aston at UTSA women's basketball practice at the Convocation Center on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. - photo by Joe Alexander

Coach Karen Aston is preaching patience as the Roadrunners to ty mesh six returning players with eight newcomers. – photo by Joe Alexander

Not all of them splashed through the nets.

But one of them, a three out of the corner, was hoisted decisively at the end of a transition play. It snapped the cords. More than a few mid-range jumpers rattled in. A big center displayed solid footwork in advance of banking in a couple from close range.

Granted, this was one practice. It was the one and only practice involving the UTSA women that I’ve seen in more than a year.

But Karen Aston acknowledged in a telephone interview on Friday that she, too, has detected a marked uptick in offensive potential since she revamped the roster for her second season as head coach.

“Definitely, I think we’re going to be able to put the ball in the basket a little more frequently than we could last year,” Aston said. “Again, last year’s team gave me (100 percent). I think we squeezed everything we could out of ‘em.

“I thought they were one of the most enjoyable teams I’ve ever coached. One of the most coachable teams I’ve ever (worked with), but we struggled to score the ball. This team will do that a little bit easier.”

Sidney Love at UTSA women's basketball practice at the Convocation Center on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. - photo by Joe Alexander

Sidney Love (center) was the player of the year in the San Antonio area last season at Steele High School. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Could it be that Aston’s rebuild of a historically downtrodden program is moving along at a faster pace than you might expect? Could it be that a drought of seven-straight seasons with losing records might be coming to an end?

It could be. As a team, the Roadrunners are decidedly bigger and more athletic than usual, and they also have more than a few players with offensive ability, which always helps. The coach has 14 players on her team, eight of them newcomers, including heralded Southern Cal transfer Jordyn Jenkins.

The other day, I noticed that Jenkins was hitting shots with regularity from 15 feet and in. Returning center Elyssa Coleman and wing player Queen Ulabo also looked as if they had been in the gym quite a bit this summer.

“Two things are going to help us be better,” Aston said. “The returners seem so much more comfortable right now in who they are and what we expect from them, as opposed to last year, (when) nobody knew. Also, the two kids from USC (Jenkins and Kyra White) are going to come in and give us some experience and maturity from playing at a high level.”

Jenkins, a power forward, and White, a wing player and a former a prep standout at Judson High School, should provide an instant boost to the Roadrunners.

Another local favorite could be Steele High School-ex Sidney Love, last year’s player of the year in the San Antonio area. Love leads a group of three promising freshmen point guards, which also includes Texan Madison Cockrell and Californian Siena Guttadauro.

Queen Ulabo at UTSA women's basketball practice at the Convocation Center on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. - photo by Joe Alexander

Senior Queen Ulabo has assumed a new role, moving from the post to the perimeter. Ulabo is considered one of the most improved returning players on the roster. – Photo by Joe Alexander

“I think the biggest challenge for this group is the point guard situation,” Aston said. “We’ve got young kids. They’re talented, and I love how they compete. (But) they’re all freshmen with the exception of (senior) Deborah (Nwakamma) … They’re going to have their highs and lows.”

Last year, as Aston began the painstaking task of turning around a traditionally downtrodden program, the Roadrunners finished 7-23. They completed the Conference USA regular season at 3-14.

In doing so, they shot a frightful 33.2 percent from the field, which ranked last in the C-USA and 346th out of 348 teams nationally. Based on what I saw the other day, though, this team could be dramatically better on the offensive end.

It’ll all start with Jenkins, an athletic, 6-foot forward from Kent, Wash. Last year, she emerged as an all-Pac 12 Conference performer, while averaging 14.8 points and 6.7 rebounds for the Trojans.

Last week, I watched her score about five baskets in a very short period of time during five-on-five work.

“Jordyn Jenkins is really talented,” Aston said. “She can do a lot of things. She’s versatile at the forward position. And in my opinion, if she sticks this thing out, and does the things she’s capable of doing, I think she’s a pro. I think there’s potential (for her) to be a pro. No question about that.”

Returning players who have caught Aston’s eye in terms of individual improvement in their games have been Coleman, Ulabo, Nwakamma and Hailey Atwood.

“They just look so much more confident in themselves and what they’re doing,” Aston said. “Their skills are better. It’s hard for me to pick one of those returners because they’ve all improved a lot. A whole lot.”

How good can the team be?

“Obviously with eight new players it’s going to be a process,” Aston said. “I mean, it’s almost like it was last year, where chemistry will have to be built … Patience is going to be important for us.”

Elyssa Coleman at UTSA women's basketball practice at the Convocation Center on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. - photo by Joe Alexander

Sophomore center Elyssa Coleman averaged 7.9 points and 4.9 rebounds last season. Coleman produced 21 points and 11 rebounds in a C-USA tournament victory over UTEP. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Is it the barbeque? Villanova’s Wright adds a regional title to his run of NCAA success in Texas

Villanova's Jermaine Samuels celebrates with teammates after being named the most valuable player. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova’s Jermaine Samuels celebrates with teammates Saturday after being named the most valuable player in the South Regional. Villanova beat Houston, 50-44, and advanced to the Final Four. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Jay Wright, without a doubt, still calls Pennsylvania home.

He was born 60 years ago in Churchville, Pa., and he has worked for the past 21 years in Philadelphia as the head coach of the Villanova Wildcats.

Villanova coach Jay Wright. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova coach Jay Wright won NCAA titles in Houston in 2016 and in San Antonio in 2018. He added a regional crown on Saturday with a victory — in San Antonio, again — over the Houston Cougars. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Nonetheless, Wright’s affection for Texas continues to grow. After all, his Wildcats have stormed undefeated through six NCAA tournament games, two each on three trips into the state, over the past seven seasons.

Wright’s latest version of the Texas two-step came this week in San Antonio at the AT&T Center.

On Thursday night, Villanova downed the Michigan Wolverines in the Sweet 16. On Saturday afternoon, ‘Nova followed with a grind-it-out, 50-44 victory over the Houston Cougars, which clinched a South Regional championship and catapulted Wright past the Elite Eight and into next week’s Final Four in New Orleans.

In his other two visits to Texas, both of them to Final Four competitions, he won national championships in Houston in 2016 and in San Antonio in 2018. So, what is this all about, Coach Wright?

“I think barbecue,” he said in a deadpan reply. “I think we like barbecue. We love Texas. We really do. It’s always nice weather when we come down here. People are so friendly. I don’t know what to tell you.

“I don’t know what it is, man. We have played some great games down here against some really good teams, and we’ve come out on top.”

Forward Jermaine Samuels produced 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Caleb Daniels came off the bench for 12 points as the Wildcats out-battled the Cougars under extremely unusual circumstances.

The Wildcats survived and advanced in spite of adversity at every turn, namely a pro-Cougars crowd, 28.8 percent shooting from the field, 23.8 percent shooting from three and a glaring lack of offense from their two leading scorers.

Houston's Taze Moore gets the crowd going late in the game. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston’s Taze Moore gets the crowd going late in the game. Moore led the Cougars with 15 points and 10 rebounds. – Photo by Joe Alexander

“I was proud of our guys,” Wright said. “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 (our players) to keep their composure and get a couple stops, hit big shots like Collin (Gillespie) did — having veteran players is the key to that, guys that have been in that moment before.”

Wright is thrilled to return to the Final Four, his fourth trip since taking over at Villanova in 2001.

“It feels great, man,” the coach said. “It feels great to be going back to the Final Four. It never gets old. It is a dream of every player and coach in college basketball. It’s the ultimate.

“We’re going to enjoy this. Tonight and tomorrow we’re going to enjoy this. We’re going to rest up, and then we’re going to get to work. We get to keep playing. That’s what we enjoy the most.”

South No. 2 seed Villanova (30-7) will play next Saturday in the national semifinals against either the Kansas Jayhaws or the Miami Hurricanes. In his heart, Wright knows that fifth-seeded Houston (32-6) could have been the team making the trip, and not his.

Villanova's Caleb Daniels puts up a shot. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova’s Caleb Daniels puts up a shot against Houston. Daniels finished with 12 points and six rebounds off the bench. – Photo by Joe Alexander

After all, the Cougars were brilliant defensively.

Not only did they hold Justin Moore to eight points and Gillespie to six, they also battled for rebounds with such tenacity that one Wildcats player compared it to “a street fight” under the backboard.

In the end, though, the Cougars could not overcome their own offensive foibles, which included 29.8 percent shooting from the field and 5 percent (1 of 20) from three.

More painfully, many of the Cougars’ shots, particularly late in the game, were good looks.

“Teams that cry care,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “There was a lot of tears in that locker room, coaches and players. This team’s been through a lot this year. I knew it was going to take a good team to beat us. And a good team did.”

Villanova made only two field goals in the last five minutes, both of them critical to the Wildcats’ success. The first was by Gillespie and the other by Samuels.

After the Cougars cut what had been an 11-point Wildcats lead to two, Gillespie stalled the momentum when he pulled up for a 15-footer with five minutes remaining.

Villanova's Jermaine Samuels shoots around Houston's Fabian White Jr. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova’s Jermaine Samuels shoots around Houston’s Fabian White, Jr. Samuels finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. He hit 6 of 10 from the field. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Later, with the clock at 1:25, Cougars point guard Jamal Shead sank a transition floater, and Sampson called time out to set up the full-court press. Villanova inbouded successfully, pushed it up court and found Samuels on a driving layup.

It settled into the net with 1:06 remaining for a 48-42 Villanova lead. On the other end, Sampson appeared to be motioning to one official that Samuels should have been called for carrying the ball on the dribble drive to the hoop.

Never mind the argument. As the Cougars pushed it back downcourt, they got the ball to Kyler Edwards, who was fouled and hit two free throws. Four-point game. Fifty nine seconds remaining. Houston still had a chance.

On the Wildcats’ next possession, they got it to Moore, who drove into the lane and then veered out of the paint to his right. Suddenly, he went down, injured, and had to come out of the game.

Houston had the ball on the turnover, going back the other way, and Cougars guard Taze Moore saw an opening to drive right to left across the lane. It was a shot he had made before. But this one hit backboard and then rimmed out.

Gillespie grabbed the ball and started up court, only to get fouled. He hit two free throws with 25.7 seconds left for the final points of the game.

“First of all, congratulations to Jay,” Sampson said. “Villanova, I think they represent college athletics at the highest level, the right way. They’ve got a really good team.

Villanova's Justin Moore drives around Houston's J'Wan Roberts. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova’s Justin Moore drives around Houston’s J’Wan Roberts. Moore, the team’s second-leading scorer and a key defensive component, suffered an injury after a fall late in the game. His status for the Final Four is uncertain. – Photo by Joe Alexander

“But if you’d have told me before the game that we’re going to hold them to 28 percent from the field, (that) they’re going to shoot 23 percent from the three-point line, and we’d lose, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Sampson lauded his team’s effort.

“Our kids guarded,” he said. “Man, did we guard. Our defense was spot on. It’s not easy to hold a team with that kind of — Gillespie, Moore, Samuels — everybody in their lineup can make a basket. Shoot, we held them to 50 points.

“We had a lot of opportunities. They didn’t go in. That happens.”

Taze Moore, a transfer into Houston from Cal State Bakersield, finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Cougars. He was 6 of 21 from the field. Sampson said he didn’t think any were bad shots.

“We got down early, then we fought back,” Sampson said. “I think we had it to four, and we had a breakaway, and Taze missed one right there in the paint. Most of the shots he missed tonight were the same as he made against Illinois (in the round of 32).

“But that’s the way it goes.”

Villanova's Collin Gillespie shoots over Houston's J'Wan Roberts. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova’s Collin Gillespie shoots over Houston’s J’Wan Roberts. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. – photo by Joe Alexander

First half

It was a game of low-down, slow down in the first half, as the Wildcats emerged with a 27-20 lead on the Cougars at intermission.

Neither team tried to push the pace and both shot extremely poor percentages from the field — Houston (30.8) and Villanova (28).

The Wildcats were the aggressors early, jumping out to a 21-10 lead. Guard Justin Moore capped the run with a three from the top of the circle.

Notable

Houston was looking to advance to the Final Four for the second year in a row. But it was not to be. Part of it had to do with a lack of backcourt scoring. Shead scored 21 points and Edwards had 19 in a victory Thursday night over the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats. Neither were as effective against the Villanova Wildcats. Shead finished with nine points on 4 of 13 shooting. Edwards scored four on 1 of 12.

Records

Villanova 30-7
Houston 32-6

Coming up

NCAA Final Four, at the Caesars Superdome, New Orleans, April 2-4.

Villanova celebrates with the South Region trophy. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Second-seeded Villanova celebrates with the South Region trophy after downing fifth-seeded Houston, 50-44. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Culture of defensive excellence defines the Houston Cougars

Houston's Fabian White Jr. plays defense on Arizona's Bennedict Mathurin. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston’s Fabian White Jr. defends against Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin in the Sweet 16. White and the Cougars smothered the Wildcats 72-60. With the victory, Houston advanced to face Villanova today in the Elite Eight. – Photo by Joe Alexander

When the Houston Cougars emerge from the dressing room today, their reputation as a basketball team built on defense will precede even the first steps they will take in the layup line.

It’s a reputation known by everyone preparing to watch the NCAA Elite Eight matchup on television. By everyone on the streets scrambling to get a ticket for the game at the AT&T Center.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson hopes to lead his team to a victory today and a second straight trip to the Final Four. – Photo by Joe Alexander

And, perhaps most importantly, by their opponent — the Villanova Wildcats.

Heck, any fan who has ever followed teams coached by Kelvin Sampson over the past 25 years knows what the Cougars are planning to do today once the ball is tossed in the air for the opening tip.

From a team concept, each player in a Houston uniform will know the plan tailored specifically to stopping Collin Gillespie and the Wildcats.

Each will know the nuances in the offensive repertoire of Gillespie and everyone else in the Villanova rotation.

Moreover, each Houston player will expend effort on the defensive end as if it’s the last thing they do.

That is essentially what happened Thursday night when the Cougars dismantled the Arizona Wildcats in the Sweet 16.

Arizona, one of the slickest and most skilled offensive teams in the nation, at first was rattled.

Then it was completely shut down. In a 72-60 loss that ended their season, the Wildcats were held some 24 points below their season scoring average.

Houston's Ramon Walker Jr. (left) and Taze Moore celebrate late in Thursday's game. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston’s Ramon Walker Jr. (left) and Taze Moore celebrate late in Thursday’s victory over top-seeded Arizona. – photo by Joe Alexander

As a USA Today columnist noted, “Houston’s physicality on every single play made things so difficult that Arizona quite literally didn’t know what to do.”

Since physicality is such an interesting word, sometimes conjuring images of an overly aggressive style of play, Houston forward Fabian White Jr. was asked Friday about the specifics of the description.

White had no problem with it.

“That’s just how we play,” White said. “We play physical. In practice, we barely call fouls. We dive on the floor, barely lose the ball in practice.

“That’s just our culture. We want to play physical and not make the game easy for the opponent. Yeah, I agree with that statement.

“We want to play physical as much as possible.”

As both teams’ players and coaches met with the media on Friday afternoon, Villanova coach Jay Wright summed up the challenge that his Wildcats will face, with a berth in the Final Four hanging in the balance.

“We know what an outstanding team we’re playing, (one) that’s got just great experience,” Wright said. “They were in the Final Four last year.

“You can tell by the way they play in these games, they are a very comfortable in this tournament setting. They’re very disciplined.”

In some ways, the Cougars’ commitment to defense overshadows some of the other elements of their success.

Villanova coach Jay Wright. No. 2 seed Villanova beat No. 11 seed Michigan 63-55 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Two-time NCAA championship coach Jay Wright hopes to win today and advance his Villanova Wildcats to a third Final Four in six years. Wright-coached Villanova claimed NCAA titles in 2016 and 2018. – Photo by Joe Alexander

“I feel like they are underrated as an offensive team,” Wright said. “Everybody knows what a great defensive team they are, but I think they really find matchups to their advantage and execute intelligently, offensively, and part of their scheme is setting themselves up for offensive rebounds …

“We know we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We worked out this morning, and we still have work to do to get ready for the game tomorrow.”

Villanova, the No. 2 seed in the NCAA South region, has played a pretty salty brand of hoops in its own right over the past few weeks.

Employing a walk-it-up pace most of the time, the Wildcats have registered victories over Delaware, Ohio State and Michigan, holding opponents to an average of 59 points per game.

Even with Villanova’s play of late, not to mention its history as a two-time NCAA champion under Wright, it’s intriguing to see that oddsmakers are favoring Houston to win today.

The reason? Likely, it stems from the Cougars’ relentless effort on the defensive end of the floor.

“It’s just really impressive,” Wright said. “Every coach tries to get their team to play that way. You wouldn’t talk to one coach who would say, ‘You know, I don’t care if my guys play hard defensively. I don’t care if they play every possession like it’s the last possession of their life.’

“We all try to get our guys to do that. Kelvin gets his guys to do it .. They literally play every defensive possession like it’s the last possession of the game.”

No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

The Houston Cougars’ hope their fans turn out in force today in San Antonio. Cougars’ fans made a difference in Thursday’s victory over Arizona.. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Houston shocks top-seeded Arizona in the Sweet 16

Houston's Jamal Shead, Kyler Edwards. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston guards Jamal Shead (left) and Kyler Edwards have a moment after the fifth-seeded Cougars knocked off the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats 72-60 in the Sweet 16 Thursday night at the AT&T Center. – Photo by Joe Alexander

When Houston Cougars guard Kyler Edwards buried a three-point shot from the corner with a little less than eight minutes remaining Thursday night, he turned around and shouted at his teammates on the bench.

His teammates waved their fists and shouted right back.

Obviously, both Edwards and the Houston bench sensed that something big might be happening. They were right. Led by Edwards, Jamal Shead and others, the fifth-seeded Cougars upset the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats 72-60 at the AT&T Center in the NCAA Sweet 16.

Houston's Josh Carlton. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston center Josh Carlton fights for the ball Thursday night at the AT&T Center. Carlton played against bigger players and finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. He was five for six from the field. – Photo by Joe Alexander

As a result, the Cougars will move on to play the Villanova Wildcats Saturday in the Elite Eight round of the tournament for the South regional title. The winner will advance to the Final Four next week in New Orleans.

“Our team, we’re a tough bunch,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “We’ve gotten a lot better as the season’s (gone) on. All the credit goes to these kids. You know, I can do whatever I want (but) the coach doesn’t win games. The players do.

“I’m really proud of this bunch. They bought into the game plan, and they’re not afraid of anybody. Whether it’s UAB or Illinois or Arizona. Our next game with Villanova, we’ll just move on to that one and do the best we can.”

Shead scored 21 points and Edwards had 19 as the Cougars (32-5) reached the Elite Eight round of the tournament for the second year in a row.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Coach Kelvin Sampson led the Houston Cougars to the Final Four last year. This year, the Cougars are now one win away from making a return trip. They’ll play Villanova in the Elite Eight round for the NCAA South regional title on Saturday at the AT&T Center. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova (29-7) beat the Michigan Wolverines 63-55 in the South region’s other Sweet 16 match-up earlier Thursday.

For Shead and Edwards and the Cougars, playing in an NBA arena in a tournament game against an elite opponent like Arizona was a big. A loud and boisterous crowd that filled most of the seats spurred them on.

“We liked how the crowd showed up today,” Edwards said. “The crowd brought all the energy today. They really helped us.”

Added Shead: “The crowd was electric.”

Shead and Edwards helped create some of the electricity. A sophomore from Manor, Shead had 21 points, six assists and four rebounds. Edwards, a senior from Arlington, had 19 points. He hit 6 of 13 shots from the field, including 5 of 9 from three.

Dalen Terry paced the Wildcats with 17 points and six rebounds. Bennedict Mathurin had 15 but he was 4 of 14 from the field. Seven-foot-one Christian Koloko had 10 points, four rebounds and two blocks.

First-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said he thinks his team had a great year.

“Overall it was great,” he said. “I thanked these guys after the game. They’re an amazing group of guys. I’ll always be thankful for them. I think they helped me get Arizona basketball off to a good start in my tenure, and I’ll always be thankful for them.”

Houston's Ramon Walker Jr. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Freshman Ramon Walker Jr. played 26 minutes off the bench against top-seeded Arizona. He held his own with five points and three rebounds. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The Wildcats entered the Sweet 16 on a seven-game winning streak. In their last 18 games coming in to the meeting against the Cougars, they had gone 17-1. In the end, they finished 33-4.

“I think we really built some foundational pieces this year that are really going to serve us well moving forward,” Lloyd said. “Extremely proud of the guys. Extremely proud of the coaching staff. We ran into a really good team tonight that was just a little bit too much for us.”

First half

In Game Two of an NCAA Sweet 16 doubleheader at the AT&T Center, the Houston Cougars on Thursday night used seven players in the first half and all played a role in building a 34-28 lead on the Arizona Wildcats.

At one point, the fifth-seeded Cougars were up by 10 points — 29-19 — on the top seeded team in the South region.

Houston's Jamal Shead. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Sophomore Jamal Shead enjoyed a breakout performance for Houston against Arizona, scoring 21 points, passing for six assists and snaring five rebounds.- Photo by Joe Alexander

Kyler Edwards, a senior from Arlington, was perhaps the key player, holding Arizona star Bennedict Mathurin to five points and one field goal. Mathurin didn’t have a field goal until 1:33 left in the half.

Other standouts included Josh Carlton and Jamal Shead with six points apiece and Ramon Walker with five. Reggie Cheney had four. Both Walker and Cheney came off the bench to give the Cougars a lift.

Defensively, the Cougars were excellent. The Wildcats, one of the best offensive teams in the nation, were limited to 7 of 25 shooting from the field. Dalen Terry had eight points and Christian Koloko seven.

Highlights for the Cougars were plenty. Fabian White opened by hitting two straight shots from the field.

Carlton played with flair and finesse on the inside, snaking around taller and broader defenders to hit shots. Shead authored a key sequence with about six minutes left.

As Koloko fired a pass out from the post, Shead stole it near half court and sped the rest of the way for a layup. The play brought the Houston fans to their feet.

Houston's Kyler Edwards. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston’s Kyler Edwards hit five 3-point shots and scored 19 points Thursday night against the Arizona Wildcats. Defensively, Edwards helped to guard Bennedict Mathurin, who was held to 15 points on 4 of 14 from the field. — Photo by Joe Alexander.

Villanova steps up the defense to knock off Michigan, 63-55

Villanova's Jermaine Samuels. No. 2 seed Villanova beat No. 11 seed Michigan 63-55 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Senior Jermaine Samuels produced 22 points on 8 of 13 shooting to help the No. 2-seeded Villanova Wildcats beat the 11th-seeded Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA Sweet 16. – photo by Joe Alexander

Forward Jermaine Samuels scored 22 points and the Villanova Wildcats, playing aggressive second-half defense, downed the Michigan Wolverines 63-55 Thursday night in an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 game at the AT&T Center.

Justin Moore had 15 points and Collin Gillespie 12 for the Wildcats, who took 30 three-point shots and made nine of them.

Michigan's Hunter Dickinson and Villanova's Eric Dixon. No. 2 seed Villanova beat No. 11 seed Michigan 63-55 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Hunter Dickinson of the Michigan Wolverines (left) battles against Villanova’s Eric Dixon. Dickinson had 15 points and 15 rebounds but was limited to 6 of 16 shooting by Jermaine Samuels, Dixon and others. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Hunter Dickinson led the Wolverines with 15 points and 15 rebounds. Eli Brooks scored 12. Michigan trailed by only three at the half but couldn’t get the offense going in the last 20 minutes.

Villanova held Michigan to 26.5 percent shooting in the second half.

With the victory, the Wildcats, seeded second in the NCAA South region, will move into the Elite Eight round. They will play Saturday against the Houston Cougars. Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 later Thursday night.

For the 11th-seeded Wolverines, the season is over. Michigan had high hopes last fall but couldn’t sustain the success once the season went into late February. The Wolverines (19-15) were 6-6 in their last dozen games, counting the postseason.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats (29-7) are rolling. Coach Jay Wright’s team has won eight in a row. In its last 14 games, Villanova is 13-1. Samuels was the man in the first game of Thursday’s doubleheader, helping to hold the 7-foot-1, 260-pound Dickinson to 6 of 16 shooting.

“I wanted to stay mobile,” Samuelson said. “I understand my teammates are right behind me. They’re going to make plays for me. That gave me all the confidence in the world. He’s a phenomenal player. He’s going to get great looks at the basket.

“Knowing I had my teammates behind me, that gave me all the confidence I needed.”

Villanova’s Caleb Daniels supplied some energy and toughness in the second half, when he went off for eight points and four rebounds.

Asked what got him going, Daniels said he knows his teammates will find him on the perimeter if he is open. He also claimed that he wanted to be on the attack, to make things happen.

“That pretty much started defensively,” Daniels said.

Records

Michigan 19-15
Villanova 29-7

First half

Villanova's Collin Gillespie. No. 2 seed Villanova beat No. 11 seed Michigan 63-55 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Senior Collin Gillespie led Villanova with four 3-pointers. He was 4 of 14 from the field and scored 12 points. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The first 20 minutes were not pretty. The Michigan Wolverines shot 44.4 percent.
The Villanova Wildcats? They were good on 37.9 percent.

Michigan blocked four shots. Villanova made four steals. It was just one of those halves.

Villanova had an edge, though. Faced with a zone defense, the Wildcats fired up 16 three-point attempts and made five of them, taking a 31-28 lead over Michigan.

Wildcats point guard Collin Gillespie knocked down three of them and his backcourt mate, Justin Moore, sank two.

Samuels finished the half with 11 for Villanova, followed by Moore with 10 and Gillespie nine.

For Michigan, Hunter Dickinson produced eight points, four rebounds and a couple of blocks.

He led the Wolverines offensively with four of seven shooting. DeVante’ Jones led a late surge for Michigan. He had seven at the half.

Michigan jumped out to an early lead but Villanova for the most part controlled the action. The Wildcats’ biggest lead was seven at 18-11 with 10 minutes left.

Villanova's Justin Moore. No. 2 seed Villanova beat No. 11 seed Michigan 63-55 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova guard Justin Moore had 15 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds against the Michigan Wolverines. – Photo by Joe Alexander