It was the final minutes of the first half, and Andrew Wiggins was slowly walking back to the bench. Kansas was being knocked around by a more physical Villanova team, and the Jayhawks were beginning to crumble inside Imperial Arena. So Kansas coach Bill Self burned a timeout, and when Wiggins had reached earshot, Self mouthed a one-word message to his freshman star.
“Soft,” Self said.
Maybe that’s what everyone was thinking, though. Not strictly about Wiggins, of course, who was playing just the sixth game of his young career, but really about the entire Kansas team.
For weeks, Self had tried to get his group of players to play more like the KU teams of recent vintage — teams that always seemed to find a way to grind through, and win, ugly games with toughness and defense.
No. 2 Kansas showed some of that on Friday night while mounting a furious comeback in the final minutes, but for the moment, it appears the Jayhawks are still working on perfecting the toughness gene.
When Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono drained a three-pointer from the wing with 10 seconds left, the Jayhawks were left to walk off the floor with their first loss of the season in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
“I put my eyes on the rim,” Arcidiacono said. “I just held my follow through.”
Villanova 63, Kansas 59.
In the final minute, Kansas freshman Frank Mason hit a spinning layup and drew a foul that put Kansas, 5-1, ahead 59-58. It was the Jayhawks’ first lead of the second half. But Arcidiacono answered with his three-pointer over a closing out Perry Ellis, and a handful of Villanova fans flooded onto the floor after Mason’s final three-point attempt rimmed off and the final buzzer sounded.
“That’s the difference in experience in tough teams,” Self said. “Because the key to having great seasons is to win when you don’t play great. And we had a chance to do that if we could get a stop, and we just didn’t do it.
In the moments after the game, Self said he wished he would have called timeout on the final possession, before Mason’s three-point attempt. But more than that, the loss reminded Self of Kansas’ loss to Kentucky in the Champions Classic in 2011.
“You try but you’re really not tough enough to have a chance to win,” Self said/ “And that team went on and did some decent things.”
Kansas will now play UTEP in the third-place game at 6 p.m. on Saturday night. And if Self is looking for more from his young team, perhaps a game like this will help. Plagued by foul trouble in the front court, Villanova owned the boards, outrebounding Kansas 28-15 in the opening half. Senior forward Tarik Black picked up his third foul in the opening 20 minutes, while freshman Joel Embiid and sophomore Jamari Traylor sat for long stretches with two early fouls.
The Jayhawks made just six of their first 25 field-goal attempts, and the offensive struggles persisted into the second half. After falling behind 57-46 on a three-pointer from Villanova’s Josh Hart with seven minutes left, Kansas scratched together an 8-0 run while playing through Embiid in the post.
Embiid, who finished with 10 points and five rebounds, would foul out with 3:53 left, but Kansas kept the run going when Mason laid in an alley oop to cut the Villanova lead to 57-56 with under two minutes left.
"We fought back," junior guard Naadir Tharpe said. "But we had a lot of let-ups ... so it came back to haunt us at the end."
While Wiggins finished with 10 points, Mason was a revelation in the final minutes, scoring 12 points in 26 minutes off the bench. The Jayhawks were also just two of 11 from three-point range and made 15 of 25 from the free throw line.
"(When) you haven't shot the ball well at all, it kind of puts extra pressure on you," Self said. "Tonight, at least our first-shot defense was much, much better."
By early in the second half, it was getting heated inside Imperial Arena, where a mostly partisan Kansas crowd made the 3,900-seat ballroom-turned-basketball venue feel like a really boisterous KU wedding reception.
Self had already picked up a technical foul in the final minutes of the first half, and a double technical was assessed to Villanova’s Josh Hart and Kansas’ Andrew White III with just under 16 minutes left. Just moments earlier, the Jayhawks cut a 10-point deficit to two points on an Ellis layup, but Villanova would extend the lead back to 48-36 on a three-pointer with 13 minutes left.
“They got a lot of freshmen,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “It was a little difference.”
Villanova would continue to hurt Kansas on the boards, and only the brilliant play of Embiid and Mason kept Kansas on life support. In the end, Villanova made one more play. And Self was left to move on with messages about toughness.
“I think that we’re a long ways to go,” Self said, “and what we’ve been trying to tell our guys: I love our talent and I love your players, but there’s a difference between trying hard and actually competing. And we have to learn how to compete.”