Villanova Falls To Kansas in Final Four, 81-65


Maggie Mengel/Villanovan Photography

Gillespie and Samuels in the final seconds of their final games in Villanova jerseys.

Colin Beazley, Co-Editor-in-Chief

NEW ORLEANS — With under a minute remaining, Jay Wright summoned Collin Gillespie to the sideline for instruction. Gillespie jogged over, exhausted. Wright called for a full court press with Gillespie defending the in-bounds pass. Gillespie willed himself to the end of the court, setting up in front of Kansas’s Christian Braun, but instead of spreading arms wide, he put his hands on his knees.

After 39 minutes against Kansas and five years and 156 games of Villanova basketball, Gillespie had nothing left to give.

Wright motioned to his bench and called for Chris Arcidiacono. Wright then turned back to the court, saw Jermaine Samuels, and returned to his bench for Trey Patterson. Wright made the substitutions. Gillespie cried on his way off the court, sharing a long hug with Wright, then with associate head coach George Halcovage, then with the other assistants and every teammate on the bench. Samuels did the same. At the end of the line, Gillespie turned and looked back on the court, with Samuels’ arm around him, sobbing. The two watched as three curtains closed, first on their 81-65 loss to Kansas in the Final Four, then on their season, then on their Villanova careers.

Five years. Over. Just like that.

Wright talked Friday about how when coaches cry at the end of the season, they don’t cry because they lost, but because they know that their time coaching their seniors is over. As Gillespie watched the final seconds tick away, he didn’t cry because he lost, but instead, because he knew it was over.

That this was the last time I was going to put the jersey on, and the last night I was going to be able to go out there, play with these guys, my teammates,” Gillespie said of his thoughts in the last seconds. “They’re the reason that I came back for my fifth year, for my teammates and coaches, just wanted to be around those guys and have an opportunity to play in games like that.”

In his final game in a Villanova jersey, Gillespie led the team in scoring, finishing the first half with 11 points and ending the game with 17. Brandon Slater finished with 16 and Caleb Daniels had 13 in his return to his hometown, but there was a Justin Moore-sized hole in the Villanova rotation that the Wildcats could not overcome.

“We were good enough to win this game,” Gillespie said. “We didn’t do some things early on. They got some open looks. And they made their open looks. But we felt like we were good enough. … You can’t replace Justin, but guys were going to step up. And we felt like they were capable and we know that they’re capable.”

The Wildcats had no answers for Kansas’s seniors, forward David McCormack and guard Ochai Agbaji. The two combined for 46 points in the win, as McCormack went 10-12 from the field for 25 and Agbaji made his first six attempts from three to finish with 21.

In 2018, when Gillespie and Samuels were freshmen, Villanova played Kansas in the Final Four. In that game, Villanova raced out to a 22-4 lead, eventually cruising to a 95-79 victory. Going into the rematch in 2022, Kansas went into the game motivated to ensure that the game would be different, and this time, the Jayhawks were the ones who scored the first 10 points.

“It was kind of a little bit of a reversal — not near to the extent — but a reversal of ’18 in that we really couldn’t do much wrong there early,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. 

“You go down 10-0 against a team that good, you’re in trouble,” Wright said. “And you’ve got to try to fight back and you’ve got to believe you can and we believed we could. But if you look back on it, going down 10-0 and letting (Agbaji) get it going at the start, arguably one of the best shooters in the country, that was not the way we planned it.”

After the initial spurt, Kansas continued to build its lead, extending it to 15 with 9:29 left in the first half and reaching 19 points with under five minutes to go, threatening to run the Wildcats out of the building. Instead, Villanova scored 10 straight points and finished the half on a 10-2 run, giving Wildcat fans like former Villanova guard Josh Hart hope that the Wildcats could mount a comeback.

“20 minutes left, you’re just looking at trying to cut the lead down in small spurts,” Hart said at halftime. “By (the) first media time out, you want to get it down to eight, and the second media time out (at the) 12 minute mark, you want to get it down to like five. And then you just want to just keep cutting the lead. It’s not gonna all happen at once. You just got to get stops and get buckets and just slowly cut that lead down.”

However, in the second half, Kansas again struck first. The Jayhawks were able to extend the lead to 16 with a three from sophomore guard Dajuan Harris. Daniels and Slater cut the lead back down to eight on an 8-0 run, but Kansas always had the answer.

“We felt like we were right there,” Gillespie said. “We were going to do whatever it took to battle back. We got down early, but it’s a long game… and we were just talking about doing — dig, scrap and claw and try to steal it in the end. We got close. They made some big plays. You’ve got to give them credit, they made big shots down the stretch when we got close.”

With six minutes left, Samuels had a three point play to cut the lead to six, but McCormack hit a jumper to take a three possession lead again. 100 seconds later, after not making a three all day, Kansas guard Christian Braun chucked up a prayer from beyond the arc to beat the shot clock. It hit nothing but net, extending the KU lead to double digits once again and ending any chance of a Villanova comeback.

“I had nothing to lose, honestly,” Braun said. “Just threw one up there and it went in.”

The Wildcats fought until the end, but when Braun’s shot stretched the gap to 12, the Wildcats, like Gillespie, had nothing left to give.

Postgame, Wright, Daniels and Slater were effusive in their praise of Gillespie. Daniels referred to him as “a legend of Villanova basketball” and “what Villanova basketball is,” while Slater said Gillespie was “one of the greatest Villanova basketball players, but also one of the greatest Villanova people that I’ve ever met.”

Wright put it simpler: “He’s a Villanova man.”

As the curtain closed on his Villanova career, Gillespie was asked how he wanted to be remembered. Gillespie was clear.

“As a guy who was going to do anything to help his team, whether it was getting guys shots, rebounding, diving on the floor, taking a charge,” Gillespie said. “I would have done whatever it took to win games and make sure that we were playing Villanova basketball.”

In the final game of the 2021-22 season, Gillespie left it all on the floor. He gave it everything, yet with his shorthanded Villanova team against a talented Kansas squad, it simply wasn’t enough.

As he did so many times throughout his Villanova career, Gillespie had the final word, summing up his Villanova basketball experience.

“The relationships, my coaches, my teammates, all the guys that I have come across, and the community, it’s really a family,” Gillespie said. “And I loved every second of it. I have brothers that will last me a lifetime now. And I have coaches that I’ll be friends with for life as well. I’m just super grateful to have been a part of this.”