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