The No. 1-ranked Houston Cougars shook more than the rims today. They shook sturdy Villanova until the Wildcats became rubble.
Houston (30-2) slam-dunked itself into a fury and into an 89-71 victory over Villanova today, winning the NCAA Midwest Regional final before 15,112 at Kemper Arena.
Call the Cougars dominant, if you like. But perhaps, after 10 dunks and 13 blocked shots today, it would be better to call them Phi Slamma Final Foura.
That is, after all, where these Cougars are headed--to their second straight final four. They will play Louisville (32-3) in a semifinal Saturday in Albuquerque, N.M.
Cougars forward Larry Micheaux had a career-high 30 points, scoring on short jumpers and tipins; he also had 12 rebounds and blocked four shots. Guard Michael Young scored 20, mostly off the fast breaks.
But the player most responsible for Houston's 25th straight victory, the longest streak in the nation, was 7-foot sophomore center Akeem Abdul Olajuwon.
Olajuwon wrote off Villanova (24-8) with 20 points on 10-of-11 shooting, 13 rebounds, eight blocked shots and infinite intimidation. After being named the regional's most valuable player, the Nigerian-born sophomore smiled and wrote down two words: "Merin Egbeyin."
"That's how you say 'final four' in Nigeria," said Olajuwon.
Houston led, 37-27, at halftime even though 6-9 forward Ed Pinckney kept the Wildcats close, playing with a rare vibrancy (18 points, 12 rebounds). But when Villanova packed its zone defense in the lane, the Cougars successfully turned to the outside.
Houston then built a 20-point lead, 53-33, with 15 minutes to play. The Cougars shot 58 percent from the field in both halves. When fading Villanova turned to the full-court press during the second half, Houston simply broke it and broke Villanova, too.
"When you don't get back on defense, after they get through the trap, you get in trouble," said Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino.
Both Olajuwon and Houston Coach Guy Lewis said this was among Olajuwon's finest efforts. He made five dunks and several turnaround jumpers that kept Houston going.
"Rebounding and blocking shots," Olajuwon said, when asked what he liked most about his game today. Then, with a smile, he added, "and dunking."
Olajuwon did not miss a shot until only 6:11 remained, when the Houston lead had already swelled to an unshakable 68-51. Perhaps it was fitting that Cougars forward Clyde Drexler (12 points) grabbed that missed shot and dunked.
Defensively, Olajuwon was as tough to scale as the Great Wall of China. His presence in the lane caused Villanova to shoot just 34 percent from the field. The Wildcats, who thrive on the inside game, showed no fear of driving the lane. But that's when they ran into Olajuwon.
And ran out of luck.
"He wasn't intimidating at all. I've been saying that all week long," said Villanova center John Pinone, bitter as his college career ended with 18 points and nine rebounds. Pinone made just seven of 17 shots. Freshman forward Harold Pressley was zero for nine. Guard Stewart Granger kept driving the lane, but finished a distant three for 15.
Because of Olajuwon.
"We just didn't shoot well," Pinone added. "But Olajuwon wasn't the difference in the game today."
To which Lewis said, "I don't how anybody can say that. Of course his (Olajuwon's) presence made a difference. Now, that doesn't mean Micheaux's presence didn't make a difference, also."
Pinone and forward Dwayne McClain (17 points) led Villanova on a minisurge, scoring from inside and outside with some aid from the press, bringing the Wildcats within 58-48 with 10:25 remaining.
At this point, Olajuwon returned from a two-minute stay on the bench (brought on by his fourth foul) to block two more shots, grab a couple of rebounds and watch Micheaux score, score, score.
So, three minutes after Olajuwon reentered, the Houston lead was resurrected to 68-51 with 7:25 left. And Massimino, whose team lost in the East Regional final to North Carolina last year, was left a smidgen of time for more pained, antacid sideline storm-trooping.
How miserable were things for Villanova today? Drexler was charged with his fifth foul with Houston leading, 76-61, with 4:04 left. The referees weren't notified that Drexler had fouled out, though, even as Massimino howled away. One minute later, Drexler committed his sixth foul of the game, and this time the referees recognized it.
Micheaux, the only senior among the starting five, said of the victory, "I have a lot of confidence in Akeem. I think we play great together. I've been waiting for this day for a long time."
From the rubble of Villanova today the words "Beast of the East" were never heard. From above the rubble, came more than comparisons between Houston and Louisville. Someone asked Drexler if these Houston Cougars were better than the professional Houston Rockets, whose record is the worst in the National Basketball Association.
"No comment," said Drexler, laughing, with raised eyebrow.