Down in New Orleans, Villanova came into Saturday night on the doorstep of its third national title game appearance in six years.
The scene more than 1,200 miles back home: A Finneran Pavilion watch party packed with thousands of fans and students cheering them on.
Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last.
The Wildcats were knocked out of the NCAA’s Final Four, 81-65, by the No. 1 seeded Kansas, in a game where the Jayhawks took the lead out of the gate and never gave it up.
Villanova, tough and persistent through the entire season, did make a push late in the first half and into the second to close in on what was, at one point, a 19-point hole. But the magic ran out. The run was over for a largely veteran group. Most of all, it was the end of the line for Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, two top players who each came back for a fifth year and one more go.
But at the end of the day, few of those watching at the Pavilion left hanging their heads.
After two COVID-impacted years — the first resulting in the cancellation of the college basketball season outright and the second placing heavy restrictions on attendance — many were happy to be along for the ride, however far it went.
“It’s electric, it’s incredible to be here,” said junior Noah Shauf, who was on the court watching the game on one of the big screens overhead. “It’s fun to see everyone around us keeping up this energy.”
“It’s kind of unbelievable,” said junior Stephen Terry, who was right beside Shauf on the floor. “We heard about it coming in, right? The two almost back-to-back (National Championships in 2016 and 2018), and just not having a tournament our freshman year with COVID. Now we’re in the Final Four. It’s really cool.”
It was halftime and Villanova was down, 49-20. Kansas had jumped out to a 10-0 lead to start the game, then built that 19-point lead, 38-19, with 4:55 left in the first.
Things quieted down for a bit, but Nova Nation wasn’t about to waver. When Gillespie made a three-pointer to finally get the Wildcats back on the board, the crowd erupted and cheered every basket, free throw, forced turnover, and rebound that followed in a 10-2 Villanova run that sent the game to intermission.
“Every time we hit a shot, this building just erupts. I love it,” Terry said.
“We could’ve watched half the people leave at half,” added Shauf. “But we didn’t, we’re still here. We believe. We all believe in our boys.”
Nova Nation wasn’t about to waver. Definitely not with someone like Kelby Weden around.
Dressed in a Cookie Monster costume with a Villanova jersey pulled over it, Weden, a senior, was helping fire up the crowd all night. It was an idea, she said, that originally started as a morphsuit in her freshman year, then evolved because “I had to step it up each year, right?”
COVID, like with everything the past couple years, threw a wrench in Weden’s plans to bring the Cookie Monster out earlier. But on Saturday, it was go time.
“This year I had to go all out,” she said. “And what better way or place to go all out than a Final Four matchup? You gotta wear the Cookie Monster, you gotta get the student section hyped, and everyone in the student section is just bringing the energy. It feeds into the energy for me and my Cookie Monster fit, and it brings Villanova basketball in perspective. It’s an amazing environment. I just love it!”
Weden got to Villanova after the Wildcats had won it all 2018, and like many students on Saturday, this was her first time being on campus for a postseason run that has gone this far.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Weden said. “Just the energy on campus has been amazing. You can feel it not just in the classes, but even when you walk into the dining hall. Everyone you talk to, whether they’re checking you out for food or if you’re going to talk to a professor, you always start or end the conversation with ‘So, what’s the team going to be doing this weekend?’ And you can see the [players] on campus, they’re just regular guys. You talk to them, and they say ‘Yeah, thank you for cheering us on!’
“It’s just an amazing experience as a student because you get to experience this with the team, but then also with your other peers. So it’s amazing, just absolutely amazing.”
Sophomore Caroline Romano echoed similar sentiments.
“It’s been crazy,” Romano said. “During the whole month of March, it’s been so suspenseful, and the whole tone on campus has changed to having even more pride than normal, more spirit. It’s been great overall. It’s been really cool to see us transform, everyone coming together more than I’ve ever seen before for this event.”
Michael Moroski, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, watched the game while resting along one of the tables above the lower-level seats. He’s been a Villanova hoops fan since he was five years old, and has fond memories growing up of watching guys like Corey Fisher, Scottie Reynolds, and Maalik Wayns, which he joked “It’s amazing how old I feel now because he’s a coach on the staff.”
Moroski watched the Wildcats win their titles in 2016 and 2018 as just a fan, and with their dominance over the Big East in the last decade, he said he felt almost numb to the program’s success. But for him, being a part of a run like this as a student has had a totally different feel.
“When you’re here as a student and you get to see your team on a national stage like the Final Four, it means the world,” Moroski said during halftime. “I’m gonna remember this when I’m in my 50s, my 60s, whether they win this game and the tournament…whether they win it or not, I’m gonna remember this the rest of my life…I’m gonna look back and remember how blessed I am to be a Villanova Wildcat.”
With just over six minutes left in the second half, Villanova was trying to close the gap. Samuels got the ball and backed in toward the basket. He made a short jumper through contact. And-1. Kansas’ lead was down to six. The Pavilion went nuts.
But the good times didn’t last.
The Jayhawks pulled away. Time was too short and the lead too great. Gillespie and Samuels, both teary-eyed, were subbed out one last time. When they were shown on the broadcast, the Pavilion crowd met them with an ovation.
After the run those two had, there’s little reason for them to leave hanging their heads.
“I think it’s a great example of resilience,” said Connor Malloy, who came out Saturday to watch the game with his father and alumnus, Joe. “I think with Gillespie getting hurt last year, Samuels coming back for a fifth year, I think it shows that they’re really bought into the system.”
“I would use the word ‘brotherhood,'” Joe Malloy said. “To see what happened to Gillespie last year, going down before the tournament, now Justin Moore, tragically, he got hurt in the Elite Eight game. But now you see the team coming together around these guys. I really see that bond, that special bond between these players.”
Postgame down in New Orleans, Gillespie was asked what the biggest takeaways from his time at Villanova were.
“The relationships,” he said. “My coaches, my teammates, all the guys that I’ve come across, the community. It’s really a family, and I loved every second of it.
“I’m super grateful to have been a part of this. It’s bigger than me…It’s just a really special place.”
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