April 3, 2018 / 3:55 AM / 3 months ago

DiVincenzo, strong 'D' lead Villanova to NCAA title

Much was made of Villanova’s balanced, prolific scoring as the Wildcats mowed down one opponent after another in one of the most dominant runs through an NCAA Tournament in years.

Apr 2, 2018; San Antonio, TX, USA; Villanova Wildcats guard Jalen Brunson (1) celebrates with the National Championship trophy after beating the Michigan Wolverines in the championship game of the 2018 men's Final Four at Alamodome. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Lurking in the shadows was a highly underrated defense, one that turned around Monday night’s national championship game with Michigan.

Allowing the Wolverines to make just 43.6 percent of their field-goal attempts and just 3 of 23 tries from 3-point range, the top-seeded Wildcats notched their second title in three years with a 79-62 verdict at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

In becoming the first team since North Carolina nine years ago to win every tournament game by double figures, Villanova (36-4) got a game-high 31 points from sixth man Donte DiVincenzo and 19 from Mikal Bridges.

Yet even DiVincenzo, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player who steamrolled Michigan with a run of 10 straight points late in the first half and another burst of nine straight points in the second half, pointed to his defense as the most satisfying factor.

“The blocked shots, definitely,” he said when asked if scoring 31 points or rejecting a pair of shots pleased him more. “I pride myself on defense and bringing energy to this team.”

The Wildcats’ versatility and ability to play positionless basketball on offense also translates to the defensive end. Almost everyone in the Villanova rotation can guard multiple positions, allowing the team to switch screens if needed, and most of the player are quick enough to deny opponents their favorite spots.

Michigan (33-8) was able to execute its offense well enough for the first 10 minutes, leading on Moritz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to grab a 21-16 lead just over 12 minutes into the game. However, when Villanova started cutting off driving lanes and forcing the Wolverines to settle for jumpers, the game changed.

“They obviously played the drive better, and I turned it over a couple of times,” Wagner said. “You have to give them credit. They’re a really good team defensively and when they play like that, they’re tough to beat.”

DiVincenzo’s outburst made beating Villanova just about impossible. The Big East Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year scored 10 of his 18 first-half points in a span of just 2:55, keying a 23-7 spurt that turned a seven-point deficit into a 37-28 halftime lead.

Canning 3-pointers, scoring off the dribble and even drilling one long jumper over two defenders, DiVincenzo put Michigan in a hole it wasn’t about to escape.

“We needed to play better,” Wolverines coach John Beilein said, “but even if we had played at our best, it would have been very difficult to win with what DiVincenzo (was doing).”

Wagner scored to start the second half, but the Wildcats weren’t about to let suspense enter the equation. Continuing to string stops together while regaining rhythm offensively, they hit Michigan with a 14-3 run that Bridges capped with a 3-pointer for a 51-33 lead with 14:36 left.

The Wolverines kept working but couldn’t get closer than 12 for the game’s remainder. DiVincenzo peeled off nine straight points in a 2:39 stretch, finishing it with a 3-pointer with 7:57 on the clock to make it 62-44.

Fittingly, it was DiVincenzo who dribbled out the final 10 seconds, flinging the ball toward the ceiling of the cavernous football stadium as his teammates mobbed him.

“We grind every single day in practice,” he said. “To experience this is a dream come true.”

Abdur-Rahkman paced Michigan with 23 points and Wagner contributed 16, but their best efforts just weren’t enough to hold off Villanova.

“I can’t put this into words,” Brunson said. “This is spectacular.”

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