HOUSTON – Well, at least there's still Monday.
The NCAA tournament championship matchup of Villanova vs. North Carolina is the last chance to bail out a Final Four gone very wrong. Beat-down Saturday saw the Wildcats eviscerate Oklahoma 95-51, followed by the Tar Heels' steady domination of Syracuse, 83-66. Sharks vs. seals is more competitive than these games.
When both contests end with walk-ons getting minutes and fans leaving early, it's been a disappointing night. Especially when you consider that the Final Four rarely disappoints. Blowouts happen in sports, often when you least expect them – but the tourney has built its mystique and allure on drama, and this was the least dramatic pair of semifinals ever.
They were decided by a combined 61 points, largest margin ever. Previous record was 54 points, in 1949. It had been eight years since the last semifinal games were both decided by double digits – and there's never been one decided by 44.
The Sooners collapsed in the face of a withering shooting bombardment from Villanova, capitulating to a shocking degree. Oklahoma was soft protecting the paint, lax guarding the perimeter and it missed shots by the Sooner Schooner-load. Buddy Hield, the central figure of this tourney, almost completely disappeared, finishing with nine points – 16 below his average.
The second-seeded Sooners had lost seven games all season by a total margin of 40 points – then lost by more than that in an absolutely disastrous 40 minutes. Oklahoma fans would probably still rate losing the football national championship to USC 55-19 in 2005 as a worse loss, but only because it's a football school.
At least Syracuse can say it died with its snow boots on. The 10th-seeded Orange were significant underdogs and lived down to that role for the most part, but they did get within seven points with 9 minutes and 48 seconds left. That sparked hopes among the 'Cuse fans of a third straight miracle comeback, after rallying to beat Gonzaga and Virginia in Chicago to get here.
But then 22 seconds later, Marcus Paige made Carolina's first 3-pointer of the game after 12 straight misses. That was followed by a Theo Pinson three 42 seconds later, and school was out.
Carolina's lead was double digits for the final 8:17. Villanova's lead was double digits for the final 15:52. At times it seemed like triple digits.
The score over the final 15:52: Villanova 49, Oklahoma 14. The final margin was the biggest demolition of the entire tournament.
Not even the 1-16 seeding matchups were this lopsided. The worst of those was Oregon 91, Holy Cross 52.
"Obviously not the result we wanted," Sooners coach Lon Kruger said.
Obviously not a result conceivable in Kruger's worst nightmares.
This should make the 2011 Butler team feel better. Someone has now had a worse performance in a Houston Final Four game.
"Everything fell apart, even when we got stops," Oklahoma guard Isaiah Cousins said. "They was just making everything."
That is very nearly a true statement. The Wildcats made 71.4 percent of their shots, best in a Final Four game since, um, Villanova in 1985 and the Perfect Game to upset Georgetown. They made 61 percent of their 3-pointers. That at least put a violent end to the notion of NRG Stadium being a place where shooters go to die.
It also was 'Nova's fourth spectacular shooting performance of this tournament, after occasionally flailing offensively earlier in the season. The one game where the Wildcats weren't torrid from 3-point range was the South Region final against Kansas, where they made 4 of 18 beyond the arc and still advanced on a night when the Jayhawks shot every bit as errantly.
Even with that game factored in, Villanova is 48 of 98 from 3 in the tourney. That's scalding.
And now the Wildcats will run into a Carolina team that might be Roy Williams' best defensively. And as usual, he's got a team that knows how to score.
The Tar Heels sliced up the vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone, working the ball inside and moving it faster than the Orange could react. The play of the night was emblematic of Carolina's interior work: Paige's touch pass to Kennedy Meeks for a dunk that stretched the lead to 16 with 14:07 left.
That fit Williams' first tenet of the game plan for the third meeting with Syracuse this season: "Attack their defense with great spacing and great movement and great offensive rebounding."
This was North Carolina's fifth straight NCAA tournament game without being significantly stressed. Average margin of victory: 16.2 points.
But Villanova is rolling as well. Average margin of victory for the Wildcats in this tourney: 23.6.
So there is hope for Monday night. Two teams that have had great seasons colliding, with the title on the line. This certainly doesn't figure to be a buzz-kill championship game like 2011 (the Butler fiasco against Connecticut) or 2009 (North Carolina's rout of Michigan State) or 2004 (UConn's mauling of Georgia Tech).
If it does turn into a blowout, we can probably declare this the worst Final Four ever. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Let's simply agree to never speak of Beat-down Saturday at the Final Four again.
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