HOUSTON — As he exited the floor at halftime of his team's Final Four clash with Oklahoma, Villanova's Daniel Ochefu turned around to glance at the NRG Stadium scoreboard one more time.
It was as if he wanted to make sure his eyes weren't deceiving him.
The team that lost by 23 points in the first meeting between the Sooners and Wildcats held a double-digit lead. The team that faced questions about how it would stop Buddy Hield all week was stifling the national player of the year like few opponents have all year. The team with a reputation for early NCAA tournament exits already was well on its way to the national title game.
In a display of dominance few expected leading up to Saturday's game, Villanova throttled Oklahoma 95-51 to earn a title shot on Monday night against either North Carolina or Syracuse. The Wildcats led by 14 points at halftime and delivered the knockout punch early in the second half en route to a result that shattered the previous record for largest margin of victory in a Final Four game.
"I am surprised, actually," Ochefu said. "I definitely was not expecting that coming into this game. It's a credit to the type of players we have on this team. We were dialed in defensively and we were able to make shots tonight."
There were many heroes for Villanova on a night when it silenced all talk of NRG Stadium's poor sight lines for shooters by hitting a jaw-dropping 71.4 percent of their field goal attempts.
Josh Hart scored a game-high 23 points on 10-for-12 shooting, punishing Oklahoma off the dribble and on the offensive glass. Ochefu hurt Oklahoma early in the game on the low block and Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins and Phil Booth each hit multiple 3-pointers as the Wildcats shredded a Sooners defense ranked in the top 15 nationally all season.
"A big part of it was that we got the ball inside to Daniel Ochefu early in the game, and it just loosened up their defense and made our guys comfortable," Villanova assistant Ashley Howard said. "When you take the time to get the ball inside and you're not just taking quick shots, you limit their opportunities to get out in transition. So I think that really helped us on both ends of the floor."
If back-to-back second-round exits inspired doubts about Villanova's legitimacy entering the NCAA tournament, it's safe to say the Wildcats have answered any lingering questions. They're now on the precipice of capturing Villanova's second championship, joining the miraculous 1985 team that entered as a No. 8 seed yet toppled heavily favored Georgetown in the national title game.
The roots of Saturday's victory can be traced back to the first meeting between the Wildcats and Sooners back on Dec. 7. Oklahoma cruised to a 78-55 rout, a result that provided Villanova a barometer for what a national title contender looked like and a reminder of what the Wildcats had to fix to become one.
Over the next few months, Villanova evolved into a team that moved the ball unselfishly, displayed prudent shot selection and defended with cohesiveness and communication. As a result, the Wildcats cruised to a third straight Big East title and survived the toughest NCAA tournament draw of any of the four teams in Houston en route to their first Final Four since 2009.
While many of Oklahoma's previous opponents either face-guarded Hield to prevent him from touching the ball or sent multiple defenders at him to force him to give it up, the memory of the Sooners' balanced scoring in the first meeting between the teams led Villanova to try a different approach. Instead of assigning its top defender to shadow Hield, the Wildcats trusted their defensive principles, guarded him by committee and switched every ball screen Oklahoma set.
Whether it was Hart, Bridges, Booth, Arcidiacono or Jalen Brunson matched up against Hield, the approach was always the same: Make him put the ball on the floor and don't let him catch and shoot. The result was Hield scoring nine points on 4-for-12 shooting, one of his worst performances of the season and well below the 29 points he had averaged in four previous NCAA tournament games.
"We wanted to get Buddy off the 3-point line," Booth said. "You can't let him get catch-and-shoot threes and you can't let him get in a rhythm when he's dribbling. If he hits you with that step-back, his release is so quick, so we wanted to make it difficult for him."
Oklahoma mounted a brief surge to open the second half when Jordan Woodard rebounded his own missed free throw and scored an acrobatic layup to cut the Villanova lead to nine. But the run was short-lived as the Sooners couldn't string together stops, nor could they find any consistent sources of offense with Hield quiet and Woodard and Isaiah Cousins shooting a combined 6-for-24.
When Ochefu walked off the floor after the game was over, there was no need for him to look back at the scoreboard again. Instead he high-fived several Villanova fans, pointed his index finger to the sky and shouted the words, "one more" over and over.
"Everyone understands we can't celebrate yet," Ochefu said. "This was a big win for us, but we told each other at the end of the game, we still have work to do."
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