Leland Stein III

Posts Tagged ‘Final Four’

Michigan outlasted by Villanova in National Title Game

In sports column on April 13, 2018 at 12:12 am

 

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Villanova enjoys third National Title. AP Photo

Noteworthy run to Finals by UM halted firmly by Wildcats.

By Leland Stein III

 

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Leland Stein and HoF Coach John Thompson

 

SAN ANTONIO, Tx. – With underdog University of Michigan playing a sharp-shooting, balanced Villanova team, and, every prognosticator predicting a blowout Wildcats victory, the Wolverines jumped out on top of the favorite before 68,831 in the championship game of the 2018 Final Four at the Alamodome.

In a tournament of UMBC and of Buffalo, of Florida State and of Nevada, of upsets and outright jolts, of Loyola Chicago and Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean, Villanova had whisked through Radford, Alabama, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Kansas by 26, 23, 12, 12, 16 and 17 points.

 

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Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo’s 35-points earned him MOP of the Final Four. AP Photo

 

The Wildcats’ dominate run did not stop in the title game as they toasted Michigan 79-62, producing a 17-point victory, and, in the process evaded any of the last-minute hysterics that capped their previous title in 2016 over North Carolina.

“When we got to the 2009 Final Four and we lost the first game,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, “I thought that was my shot, I was fine. Then, when we won the title and I thought alright, I’m happy and now I just want to make sure the guys graduate and the team stays competitive. This (second title) is out of my comprehension.”

In the post-game press conference someone asked Coach Wright if he now considered his team among the elite. “We don’t really judge ourselves on being called elite. We judge ourselves on how the guys do in school, how they grow as men and how we play night in and night out. But, when the media calls you a blueblood, we’re not turning it down. We’ll take it.”

After the first five minutes, Michigan looked they were ready to give Blueblood Villanova a skirmish, holding a surprising 11-6 lead following a Moritz Wagner layin at the 15:09 mark.

The Wolverines held on and earned a 21-16 advantage after 10 minutes of play in the first half, but it was all a mirage, a delusion or figment of the imaginations of the thousands of Michigan faithful that were full of hope and joy as they traversed the San Antonio Riverwalk garbed in blue and gold, and shouting, “Go, Blue!”

With six minutes left in the first half Villanova took a 23-21 lead and never looked back. The Wildcats gathered steam and built a 37-28 lead at halftime.

“We got off to a decent start at the beginning of the game; however,” U-M head coach John Beilein said after the game, “we were not able to sustain it. That is a very good team we played and we needed to have had one of our better games to beat them.”

After Michigan’s Charles Matthews basket got the Wolverines within 12 points at 56-44 with nine minutes remaining in the game. The Wolverines’ fans got excited and extremely loud.

However, backup guard and eventual Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Donte DiVincenzo, drained two consecutive threes and just like that the score ballooned to 62-44 and Villanova went on to route Michigan.

With somewhere near 20,000 Wolverines yelling and screaming most believed that the dream of being National Champions appeared real or possible but in fact it was just another smoke screen.

Said DiVincenzo after tossing in 31 points, “It is indescribable to explain that we went through so much in practice and in conference play this year and to get on a run through college basketball’s greatest event is beyond words. This team was determined to get it done.”

Villanova was indeed determined as evident by its dominate run through the tournament.

The 80th edition of the tournament began with 68-teams, and, the nature of the single-elimination tournament to determine the men’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I college basketball national champion makes it compelling to say the least.

I root for the underdogs each year, and this was a great year to be a proponent for the small fry.

For the first time in tournament history in the first round, UMBC became the only 16-seed to defeat a 1-seed in the men’s tournament by defeating Virginia 74–54. Also, for the first time not one of the four top seeded teams in a single region (the South) advanced to the Sweet 16. Putting the icing on the underdog’s 2018 Final Four cake, No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago scratched out win after win on its way to becoming the Cinderella in San Antonio.

Michigan, after besting the “Cinderella Team” of the tournament, and, carrying the nation’s longest current winning streak of 14 games, felt it was embolden or destined to maybe win its second NCAA title. The Wolverines just could not put together an awesome shooting night, and DiVincenzo and his teammates did.

“Basketball is a hit or miss game,” UM guard Matthews deadpanned. “Today our shots weren’t falling. It is what it is.”

After coming so close, Matthews tried as hard as he could to keep things in perspective, saying “the high and low is the same thing; we lost! The high is getting here. The low is being here in the losing locker room, but I’m proud of this group of guys.  I couldn’t be more appreciative to be here.”

Added Michigan senior forward, Duncan Robinson: “We missed a lot of good shots that I feel like we usually make, so it was tough to have it on this stage and this game. Credit to them they are a really good team. We didn’t make shots we had all year. But it is basketball.”

Villanova finished 36-4 and improved to 3-1 all-time in the National Championship game, with previous victories in 1985 over Georgetown and 2016 over North Carolina. The Wildcats become only the eighth school to win three NCAA National Championships. The other teams with at least three titles include: UCLA (11), Kentucky (8), North Carolina (6), Duke (5), Indiana (5), UConn (4) and Kansas (3).

Meanwhile, Michigan finished 33-8, setting a school record with 33 wins.  The loss dropped the Wolverines to 1-6 in the National Championship games with its losses coming in 2018, 2013, 1993, 1992, 1976 and 1965.

Heading the All-Tournament team were four Villanova players; MOP DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Eric Paschall, and UM senior Wagner, Michigan.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII

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North Carolina gets Deliverance and a title

In sports column on April 10, 2017 at 2:45 am
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North Carolina celebrates its methodical victory over Gonzaga.

By Leland Stein III

GLENDALE, Az. – This was my 21st Final Four and I have to interject that this collection of college basketball teams assembled together in Phoenix were extremely unique.

In the 2017 Big Dance there were three rookies and one veteran. This Phoenix congregation of three teams – Gonzaga, South Carolina and Oregon – had one Final Four appearance among them. Oregon proudly claimed that lone one, which unproudly happened 78 years ago in the very first NCAA title game – when the NIT was a much more prestigious tournament.

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Leland Stein III

It all started in November with 351 teams, and now, five months later it was down to three Final Four rookies and one vet. Make no mistake about it however, as all four of these teams were deserving of being one of the Final Four contestants for the national title. Each team here implemented, followed unique, and in some cases unlikely, paths to Phoenix. But all four teams had a singular moment that cemented its Final Four status.

Finally, March Madness aficionados were left with two, after Gonzaga outlasted a scrappy South Carolina squad, and, North Carolina had squeezed by Oregon.

In the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship game before 76,168 we were left with one traditional powerhouse, North Carolina, and, Gonzaga in its 20th NCAA tournament appearance reaching its first Final Four in program history.

The three rookies getting to the final game weekend was an awesome story, but 2017 was not to be the year of Cinderella. With methodical precision the North Carolina Tar Heels (33-7) did just enough to win the national title overcoming Gonzaga 71-65.

The victory for the Tar Heels was sweet redemption, after they lost in 2016 on a last second shot from eventual champion Villanova.

“I put it (redemption) on the locker room up on the board,” coach Roy Williams exclaimed in the post-game euphoric interview. “They wanted redemption and my guys bought into it. They played tough, although neither team played their best, but both were competitive and battling through it all.”

Added Tar Heels center Kennedy Meeks: “It hurt badly last year losing, so we dedicated ourselves to ensuring we produced a better result than last year. I told the fellas that we could get back and get a better result and we fought through all the fouls and adversity to get it done.”

Unfortunately each team did not only have to battle each other, the referees interjected themselves into the fray and turned the game into a stop-and-start ugly contest.

The referees called 27 fouls in the second half, completely shattering the flow of the game and sent North Carolina’s

Meeks, Gonzaga’s 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, and, a horde of others to the bench in foul trouble.

The game “featured” 52 free throws. Both teams were in the bonus with 13 minutes left. Somehow, Collins was the only player to foul out.

“It sucks that I fouled out this important game,” Collins said. “Look I am going to put it on me. I had been having some foul issues all year, but I thought I had worked hard to get my defensive effort under control. The referees did not see it that way I guess.”

I will never understand why or how the NCAA allows the referees to dominate a national title game like they did. No one came to the game to see them blow whistles and run over to the scorer’s table to give a number of the supposed fouler.

No matter, Williams got his third championship, putting him one ahead of his mentor, Dean Smith, and now behind only John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp.

“When I think of Coach Smith, there’s no question,” Williams interjected with sincere enthusiasm. “I don’t think I should be mentioned in the same sentence with him. But we got three because I’ve got these guys with me and that’s all I care about right now – my guys.”

Added Joel Berry II, the 2017 NCAA Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player: “Sure it feels great to get Coach his third title. With all the ups and downs this win was awesome. It was a complete 180 degrees from last year that feeling of losing. I cannot describe how excited it is to be on the other end of this. Coach told us to remember how we all felt last year so we went out and gave it our all.”

In spite of the loss, Gonzaga has a lot to feel good about. It had made 20 tournament appearances and finally reached the Final Four for the first time — becoming the first West Coast Conference team to advance that far since San Francisco made its third straight trip in 1957. The Zags closed out their season with a lofty 37-2 record.

Also, Phoenix became the first far west city to host a Final Four since Seattle in 1995. That was a memorable one for me as I was there to watch the UCLA Bruins claimed their 11th national basketball championship.

In the end Zags coach Mark Few handled the referees with more class than I ever could. Taking the high road, calling the refs “three of the best officials in the entire country,” and insisting they did a fine job. Political correctness at its finest and probably the right call, because what else could he do? Nothing!!!!!

After all, his Bulldogs a small school in the equally small West Coast Conference, tried to keep the big picture in mind. Twenty years ago, this sort of run looked virtually impossible. With less than 2 minutes left, they had the lead in the national title game, but on this day in the desert Cinderella could not crash into the champion’s realm.

“We broke the glass ceiling everyone said we couldn’t break,” junior forward Johnathan Williams said. “We had a great season and gave ourselves a chance to win it all, but we just came up a little short.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII