Over three decades ago, the underdog Villanova Wildcats fell to the mighty UCLA Bruins in the national championship game, 68-62. One year ago, the Bruins embarrassed Villanova at Pauley Pavilion, winning 93-65 in a game even more lopsided than the score would indicate. But on Saturday, at the Pavilion, underdog Villanova finally returned the favor to UCLA, 58-57. The upset over the #15 Bruins will always rank among the greatest, most memorable, and most special games the Wildcats have played in the Pavilion...
Brooks Sales, the unassuming, solid senior, had the distinction of hero. For the winning margin, Sales converted a pair of ultra-high-pressure free throws with only 21 seconds left. UCLA's Billy Knight had two chances to tie on the ensuing possession, but neither went down. Ricky Wright grabbed the rebound with 2.5 seconds to play - but the Bruins inexplicably didn't foul him, and thus allowed the clock to expire. Wright and his teammates were soon engulfed by hundreds of court-storming students!
And from a purist's perspective - it was truly a magnificent game to watch. Both teams played well, and it's always cool to see two teams from geographically disparate regions, who rarely face each other. The game was not marred with a lot of whistles: UCLA took only nine free throws and Villanova only four (all by Sales, who made each.) Coach Jay Wright employed a stall to shorten the game against the superior Bruins; the score in the 50s and the pace of the game were a throwback to the classic days of yesteryear. His old boss, Rollie Massimino, would have felt right at home. UCLA coach Steve Lavin - after blowing the Wildcats out of Pauley with the press last year - opted to allow Villanova to set the tempo. UCLA sat in passive defenses all day, pressing on only a handful of possessions. As a result, the Wildcats committed a season-low nine turnovers - half their normal total. (And still won by only a single point.)
Gary Buchanan led the way for 'Nova (13-8), scoring 20 points, sinking six triples along the way. Sales and Wright each chipped in with a dozen; Wright narrowly missed a double-double by finishing with nine rebounds. For UCLA (16-7), Knight and Matt Barnes each had 17 points.
For this particular observer - having attended Villanova games for only five-and-a-half seasons - I've never seen so much excitement in the building. (The 1994 upset over #1 UConn at the building was prior to my arrival, so I can't compare it to that.) Just glancing around the Pavilion, seeing the student section absolutely saturated - there was genuine electricity in the air. It really reminded me of why it's cool to go to a live event, sporting or otherwise. It's that delicious sense of feeling part of something larger than yourself, of seeing thousands of other people eager to experience the same event, to remember it, to influence it with your presence, to be able to say years later, "I was there..."
With the "Rocky" theme blaring, the teams set out on the floor. UCLA started out the game with a box-and-one on Buchanan, not a bad call at all, but for some reason Lavin didn't stick with it. The teams traded baskets in the early going, with Villanova serving notice that it intended to slow the game down. Early in the game, the prototypical Villanova possession took place:
Trailing 5-3, Derrick Snowden ran down the shot clock, and finally took a desperation three that went off the rim. Andrew Sullivan secured the rebound, dished it out to Buchanan, who reset the offense. Finally, with the clock again down low (5 seconds), Sales fired a slingshot into the hole to tie the game at 5.
By the under-16 minute TV timeout, at 14:55, UCLA held a 7-5 lead. Coach J sent Chris Charles into the game early as his first sub, who hasn't played much and his entry may have surprised Lavin. After the timeout, 'Nova went on a 9-3 run and delighted the crowd. The great moment on the run came at the 13:13 mark -
Buchanan faked Jason Kapono out of his headband on the perimeter. Once Kapono committed in the wrong direction, Buchanan calmly drained a three to put 'Nova back on top, 8-7. Sullivan hit a bucket in transition. The crowd loved it. At the 9:32 mark, Buchanan hit another three to put 'Nova up 17-13: the junior now had 11 of the team's 17 points.
At the under-8 timeout, the lead had dropped to 19-18. At that point, the UCLA Bruin and cheerleaders took the floor. It's rare for visiting teams to bring cheerleaders and mascots - it usually happens only for City Series opponents, not schools from 3,000 miles away. The Bruin was female, wearing a dress and a bow in her "hair". (UCLA has both a male and female set of Bruins, which I recall from their occasional TV appearance. Why only the female Bruin made the trip remains a mystery.)
The performance by the UCLA troupe (lustily booed by the Pavilion crowd) was quite good. Due to CBS' long network timeouts, they had sufficient time to perform to the theme from "The Jeffersons": "Movin' On Up." ("Movin' On Up" is not often a song selected for college cheerleaders, and it evoked Sunday night memories of my childhood.)
When play resumed, Buchanan remained on fire. With 6:01 to play, and two seconds left on the shot clock, Buchanan heaved a-wing-and-a-prayer shot at the goal - and it went down for ANOTHER three, putting 'Nova up 22-18. The under-4 timeout was whistled, with 'Nova holding a 27-23 lead. At this timeout, 'Nova recognized some players from the 1980s Massimino era, introducing Chuck Everson (1982-86), Harold Pressley (1982-86), Doug West (1985-89) and Brian Harrington (1981-85). All were applauded. The student section, having spied Michael Bradley behind the team bench, began chanting his name.
UCLA began chipping away at the lead. Snowden allowed Cedric Bozeman to steal the ball, and Bozeman fed Knight for an easy layup at the other end, putting UCLA up 30-29, its first lead since 7-5. Coach J had seen enough and called a thirty-second timeout with 49 seconds left.
Coming out of the timeout, Snowden was able to score on a fast break with 37 seconds to play, and that was the final basket of the half. Villanova could go into the locker room with a 31-30 advantage, a lead that was as unexpected as fortuitous. The halftime numbers looked pretty good for 'Nova, especially in the turnover department - only four. Buchanan had 14 points to lead the 'Cats, while Barnes had nine for UCLA.
At halftime, Villanova honored the members of the 1971 squad, the team which had battled toe-to-toe with John Wooden's dynasty in the national title game. It was great to see all of those players in one place, along with coach Jack Kraft (sporting a unique peach jacket which he clearly did not borrow from Coach J's wardrobe).
The crowd had been a significant factor during the entire contest. (Sign spotted in the crowd, held by a female fan for the network cameras:)
(C) - oach - Will you
(B) e my
Early in the second half, Wright scored four consecutive points to boost 'Nova's lead to 37-30, and the crowd was howling. Unfortunately, Kapono nailed a three on the next possession to take the air out of the crowd. But 'Nova responded with baskets from Sullivan and Wright, pushing the lead to 41-33 and forcing Lavin to call timeout with 15:26 to play.
You know you have a good crowd when the fans are cheering anything positive, even pedestrian accomplishments like hauling down rebounds or knocking the ball out of bounds on defense. That was the kind of crowd present at the Pavilion on Saturday. T.J. Cummings was rejected by the rim on a dunk attempt shortly after, the rim facing the student section, and they let him hear about it.
At 10:22, the most unusual play of the game occurred. I was at the other end of the Pavilion, away from the student section basket, so it was hard for me to see what happened. Here's what I could figure out, after the fact-
Wright came down with a rebound, and was swinging his elbow to clear out, and he inadvertently hit UCLA's Rico Hines in the teeth. Hines fell facedown on the hardwood, while the Wildcats employed a fastbreak at the other end. The instant UCLA rebounded successfully, the officials blew the whistle. No foul was called on Wright, and Lavin was quite agitated. One of his assistants went absolutely ballistic, wildly gesticulating about a foul call, and the players were exchanging words in close proximity. Fortunately, nothing got out of hand.
At the 9:24 mark, a signature sequence occurred. Sales blocked a Kapono shot, and the ball went to Buchanan and Wright on a two-on-one break. Buchanan dished to Wright who slammed the ball home to give 'Nova a 45-39 lead. I have NEVER heard the Pavilion so loud. It was like a wall of sound was coming from the student section. I could feel Palestra-style vibrations in the Pavilion which I never thought possible.
At the under-8 timeout, with 7:49 to play, 'Nova held a 47-42 lead. At that point, the students welcomed future Wildcat Jason Fraser - the top center prospect in America and the jewel of Coach J's heralded recruiting class - with enthusiastic chants of his name...
UCLA took advantage of an intentional-foul call on Ricky Wright (during a UCLA free-throw) which enabled the Bruins to score six points on a single possession. The Bruins, seemingly on the run, had rallied to climb back on top, 48-47, with 6:47 to play.
And it seemed as if momentum was slowly swinging back to the visitors. With just under four minutes to play, Knight stole the ball from Buchanan and converted an easy dunk, giving UCLA a 54-50 lead and inducing a Coach J timeout. The fans were quiet and it appeared that the #15 Bruins would escape with just a good scare. Little did any of us know that UCLA would score only three points the rest of the way.
At crunch time, Kapono made the first of two foul shots to put UCLA up 55-53. He missed the second, but 'Nova failed to box out properly and Knight rebounded, laying it in to extend the lead to four with only 1:40 to play. Lavin quickly called timeout to set up pressure.
On the ensuing posession, 'Nova got the ball up the floor, worked it around properly, and enabled Buchanan to hit another three, cutting the lead to one with 1:18 to play! The cheers sounded to the rafters, and we were headed to a thrilling finish. UCLA, working for a good shot, had the ball knocked out of bounds with only three on the shot clock, and they were unable to do anything. Ricky Wright stole it with 40 seconds to go.
With 21 seconds left, Dan Gadzuric fouled Sales. Lavin didn't call timeout to ice him. And Sales hit the biggest free throws of his Main Line career to give 'Nova a 58-57 lead - the Wildcats' first lead since 50-48. Lavin didn't call timeout to set up a play. The stingy Wildcat defense was able to successfully deny Knight's pair of shots, and when the buzzer went off, pandemonium ensued.
The mass of humanity surged toward the court. Security made an effort to stop them, but there was no force on earth that was going to stop the giddy students from streaming onto the floor. (This was Villanova's first court-storming since February 27, 1999. That day, also in front of CBS cameras, the Wildcats upset #9 St. John's and secured a NCAA tournament berth by doing so.)
At the end of each game, the players and Coach J always go over to "clap" for the students, to thank them for their support. But this is the first time under Coach J that the mountain has come to Mohammed, so to speak. The fans came to them. The players were bobbing around in the crowd; every once in a while you could catch a glimpse of a tall guy in a white uniform, like buoys in a highly turbulent ocean of swaying fans, all jumping up and down and leaping. The Wildcat was in the midst of it as well. Everyone - hopefully - realized that this is a precious moment, one to savor, because you never know when it will come again. The only reason the game was on-campus-
due to the NBA All-Star Game, the First Union Center was unavailable. So Villanova was unable to voluntarily throw away home-court advantage by shifting the game there. But such serendipity can not often be expected from the basketball gods. There is a good chance this is the only time a nonconference opponent of UCLA's stature will visit Villanova's campus, for any time in the foreseeable future. And for that reason, the students who rushed the floor should treasure the experience. This game showed what Villanova basketball has always been about - being scrappy and gallant and refusing to back down in front of a superior opponent. And coming out with an upset in the end, a storybook ending...
After the St. John's game, one observer described the game as "a two-hour, free informerical for Villanova University." And on Saturday, Villanova benefitted from yet another infomercial, thanks to CBS' cameras. It was a joyous sight to see, and not just because I'm a Villanova fan. There is a rarity in college basketball, something that it can offer that no other sport can. To gaze upon the joyous throng, to see that in spite of all of the complexity and sobriety and sorrows and heartaches of life:
there is still something that can compel hundreds of people - some dressed in varying wigs, capes and costumes of blue and white - to propel themselves onto a floor in celebration, all knowing that it's a moment that only comes once in a blue moon... that's life, all packed into a single court-storming. And being a college basketball fan- well it's something where - in the course of a single season, and sometimes even in a single game- you get to experience everything life has to offer, to feel joy and camaraderie, and sorrow and despair and disappointment. And to experience it with several thousand other people at once. And to remember it forever.
You play the season ostensibly for wins and losses, but in reality for memories... and this game is a memory I'll treasure forever.
That Gary Buchanan can really fill it up from outside. UCLA had no real answer for the junior marksman, who almost singlehandedly destroyed the Bruins. Buchanan has scored more points in other games, but scoring 20 of your team's 56 points in a one-point victory is far more meaningful than 30 points in a high-scoring contest. He shone in other areas as well- he played all 40 minutes, dished three assists and nabbed three steals.
Derrick Snowden committed four turnovers, but he ran the offense smoothly and implemented Coach J's goal of reducing the number of possessions. The season-low nine turnovers should be primarily credited to the superb job by the sophomore point guard.
Ricky Wright, after slipping a bit in the last couple of games, was back to his true self on Saturday. Recently, the one-time national leader in field-goal percentage had dropped out the Top 25. But he hit 6-8 from the floor, crashed the boards well, including the game-securing carom in the dying seconds.
Andrew Sullivan did a fantastic job on Kapono. Sullivan relentlessly hounded the Bruin superstar, holding him to 9 points on miserable, 3-9 shooting.
Chris Charles played 15 minutes, mostly in the early going; while his box score line was unremarkable (2 rebounds) he helped create matchup problems underneath and was valuable.
Team defense. UCLA, a finesse-oriented Pac-10 team, never seemed comfortable in their halfcourt offense. Holding the Bruins to 56 points is a great effort for which all the Wildcats should be commended.
It would be nice if the Wildcats could savor the victory for all it's worth, but unfortunately they have another opportunity to play a ranked team Monday night - taking on Connecticut at the Hartford Civic Center, in front of ESPN's cameras...Go Wildcats!