HOUSTON (CNN) — Heading into Final Four weekend, there were questions on how well teams could shoot in NRG Stadium in Houston, a 70,000-plus seat stadium, primarily the home of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
Villanova had an emphatic answer Saturday in the first NCAA Final Four semifinal: No problem whatsoever.
Junior guard Josh Hart scored 23 points to lead a balanced attack, and the No. 2 seed Villanova Wildcats defeated No. 2 seed Oklahoma Sooners 95-51 to advance to the NCAA men’s basketball national championship game.
As a team, Villanova shot an incredible 72% from the field and won by the biggest margin of victory ever in a Final Four game.
On Monday, Villanova (34-5) will face either No. 1 seed North Carolina (32-6) or No. 10 seed Syracuse (23-13) in the second semifinal, which is scheduled to tip off around 8:49 pm E.T.
It will be Villanova’s first trip to the national championship game since 1985, when the Wildcats, then a No. 8 seed, improbably beat No. 1 Georgetown with a ridiculous field goal percentage of 78.6.
This year’s NCAA tournament had been all about Buddy Hield, aka “Buddy Buckets.” The senior guard from the Bahamas — who is second in the nation in scoring this season at 25.4 points per game, had been lighting up the scoreboard, averaging 29 points per game in this year’s tournament heading into the Final Four.
Saturday evening was a much different story.
Hield had his worst performance of the tournament. He was held to nine points on 4-of-12 shooting, including 1-of-8 from three-point range.
Villanova’s Hart, meanwhile, rarely missed. He finished 10-of-12 from the field.
The game started off with teams trading baskets and keeping it close, and Oklahoma had a 17-16 lead with 12:35 remaining in the half. Villanova, however, caught fire, going on an 11-0 run to take a 28-17 lead with 6:57 remaining in the opening period. The Wildcats’ field goal percentage was 66.7% and they comfortably led at halftime, 42-28.
This was a rematch for the two teams, with drastically different results. Oklahoma beat Villanova 78-55 on December 7 in Hawaii.
Before the game, four student-athletes representing each Final Four school sang the national anthem. While each one of them was cheered, there were some boos when Vice President Joe Biden was shown on the big screens above the court during the performance.
Former President George H. W. Bush, meanwhile, got a nice ovation when he was shown on screen with 1:10 left in the first half.
However, Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, each had a very good reason to attend. Both have ties to two schools in the Final Four: The Vice President graduated from Syracuse law school, while Jill Biden earned one of her two doctorates from Villanova.
Second game: Familiar foes
In the second semifinal, the two teams are extremely familiar with each other, as both are from the Atlantic Coast Conference. North Carolina has defeated Syracuse twice this season, winning 84-73 at Syracuse on January 9 and 75-70 at home on February 29.
Even with the previous success against Syracuse this season, the Tar Heels don’t plan on taking their opponent lightly.
“It doesn’t mean they are going to come in and have the same results,” UNC sophomore guard Joel Berry II said. “We just can’t get complacent with those two wins that we had. We have to come out here with the fire we’ve been playing with and try and get the win.”
Despite its reputation as a title contender in previous years, Syracuse, with the up-and-down season it has had, is one of the most improbable Final Four teams in the tournament’s history.
Losing 13 games this season, including going 1-5 in its final six games before the NCAA tournament, Syracuse was in danger of missing the tournament altogether as a bubble team. Additionally, the Orange’s head coach, Jim Boeheim, was suspended for nine games earlier this season for what the NCAA said was failing to monitor his basketball program.
“It was interesting,” said senior guard Trevor Cooney of Syracuse’s topsy turvy season. “We proved we could beat anyone, and we proved we could lose to anyone. Sometimes, that’s just how it is. We know what we need to do to win. The experience helped us.”
As the lone No. 1 seed left in the tournament, the Tar Heels are the clear favorite Saturday night. But don’t take that to mean that UNC — a program making its 19th Final Four appearance, the most in NCAA history — necessarily has any added pressure. According to senior guard Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels are “comfortable and confident playing anybody.”
“There is always pressure,” Paige said. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to play well, but at the same time we are the favorite for every game in our minds no matter who we are playing, so it does not change our outlook very much.’
CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.
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