Monday, November 24, 2003

A Blue Hawaii for Villanova: Maui Invitational Host, Division II Member Chaminade Silverswords Upset Wildcats, 52-49

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

The Lahaina Center in Maui, Hawaii, the host floor for the Maui Invitational, has seen one of the greatest triumphs in Villanova's illustrious history, the 1995 victory over a North Carolina squad featuring the likes of Vince Carter and Antawn Jamieson. Unfortunately, it will now have to share that distinction with one of the program's more embarrassing defeats. The Division II Silverswords shocked Villanova, 52-49, in a breakfast-time game (9 AM tip-off, Maui time) today.

It was Chaminade's first victory in the Maui Classic since 1992, and only its fourth in the 20-year history of the tournament, against 46 losses. The Silverswords had dropped thirty Maui Classic games in a row, prior to today. (Chaminade, best known for its 1982 victory over #1 Virginia and Ralph Sampson, parlayed that exposure into the creation of the Maui Classic, now officially the EA Sports Maui Invitational.) Chaminade's last victory in this tournament came on December 23, 1992, against Stanford. The 'Cats had led by 43-35 with 9:03 to go, and seemed to be in control. But Chaminade rallied to outscore 'Nova 17-6 the rest of the way and pull off the stunning upset.

Allan Ray led the Wildcats (2-1 overall, 2-0 vs. Div. I opponents) with 19 points, while Randy Foye chipped in 12 points, and Chris Charles added eight points, twelve rebounds, and five blocks. For Chaminade (1-0), Roy Stigall III led with 14 points while playing all 40 minutes. Sam Henning had a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds, and Kashif Reyes (who hails from Reading, PA) also reached double figures with 10 points, including a big three down the stretch. Villanova will play its second game in Maui at 4 PM EST on Tuesday (11 AM in Maui), against Santa Clara.

It's been quite a while since Villanova has lost to a non-Division I opponent. (It's difficult to determine because schools move up and down between classifications as the years go by.) The most recent non-Division I loss that I can find was during the 1985-86 season, the third game after the miraculous national title. Rollie Massimino's Wildcats were blown out at Lamar, 78-59, on November 26, 1985. (Lamar is currently Division I, but probably was not at the time.)

While the magnitude of the defeat is mitigated somewhat by Villanova's skeleton roster, that will be of little comfort come Selection Sunday, if the Wildcats are on the bubble. The NCAA is not likely to cut them a break, given that the skeleton roster came as a result of a NCAA violation. Fortunately, games against non-Division I teams don't count in the RPI (for the simple reason that there aren't enough of those games for the NCAA to bother doing all of the extra calculations), so Villanova will escape on that score - but this defeat will be noted and held against them on Selection Sunday.

In this tournament, Villanova will have to contend with a couple of experimental rules. The NCAA prefers to use the holiday tournaments as a laboratory, experimenting with various permutations of current rules. (Some of you may remember back in 1999-2000, when they decided to experiment with letting a fouled team keep the ball on the side, rather than being forced to take foul shots. Villanova benefited from this, being able to salt away a Hawaii victory over Wake Forest by never being forced to defend the lead at the line. Naturally, the rule was never implemented in regular season play.) This year, the experimental rules involve standardization of the three-point line and lane to international dimensions: i.e., moving the three-point arc back nine inches and using a wider, trapezoid-shaped lane. In a three-point loss, the lane expansion might very well have made the difference. A wider lane will generally help the smaller team, in this case Chaminade, as the big men can't hover as close to the basket.

Chaminade started out the game on fire, rocketing out to a 10-2 lead, less than five minutes into the contest. Villanova really scuffled during the first half, shorthanded. The Wildcats had trouble overcoming Chaminade's tenacious man-to-man defense, and could never develop much of a rhythm. The Wildcats got hit with ten personal fouls, and the frequent whistles meant that play was choppy and didn't flow easily.

Despite these disadvantages, the Wildcats painstakingly constructed a 18-12 lead at the 8:35 mark, the under-12 minute TV timeout coming late (during a rare span when there were no whistles). But the Silverswords came back with a vengeance, spending the last 8:35 of the half on a 16-2 run. They reclaimed the lead at 21-20 with 2:19 to play on a triple by Stigall, and went into the locker room celebrating a 28-20 lead over the Main Liners. In the first half, Villanova had exploited its relative size advantage, blocking seven shots - although the aggressive contesting of shots was the chief reason for the foul trouble. Will Sheridan and Chris Charles each finished the half with two fouls.

In the second half, Villanova seemed to feel more comfortable, and the Wildcats' shots began dropping: during the first six and a half minutes of the second stanza, Villanova went on a 12-4 run, keyed by three buckets from Foye. The score thus stood at 32 all, and the Wildcats appeared to have overcome their initial obstacles - their talent superiority was beginning to assert itself. Chaminade did pick up some momentum when Ray picked up his second and third fouls within ten seconds, the latter coming at the 11:52 mark and Chaminade holding a 35-34 advantage.

However, Ray stayed on the floor (coach Jay Wright could hardly afford to take him out), and helped 'Nova run out to its first lead in a while. After acquiring those fouls, Villanova outscored Chaminade 9-0 over the next three minutes or so - with seven of the points coming from Ray. The last three came on a triple with 9:03 to play, putting the Wildcats up 43-35, their high-water mark for the game.

Unfortunately, Chaminade kept chipping away at the lead, whittling it down to 44-41 at the 5:32 mark. Sheridan picked up his fourth foul against Henning underneath with 4:49 to go. Although Henning missed both free throws, it still hurt because Sheridan had to curtail his aggressiveness considerably the rest of the way.

Villanova's last hurrah came at 2:35, when Ray hit another basket to make it 46-41. At that point, the Wildcats crumbled, permitting Chaminade to run off eight unanswered points in only 51 seconds. The key play of the game, in retrospect:

With 'Nova clinging to a 46-44 lead, with less than two minutes to play, an errant Chaminade shot bounced crazily around, finally heading to Reyes. Nardi mistakenly (and understandably) thought that Reyes wasn't his man and left him, to cover another Silversword who did NOT have the ball. Reyes - undoubtedly thrilled at the uncontested shot - calmly drained a three to put Chaminade up 47-46 - and as it turned out, for good. As it went through the hoop, the small, pro-Chaminade crowd went crazy at the prospect of an upset over the Big East program.

Wright expertly managed the last 1:44, giving the Wildcats every opportunity to try to steal the game back. Unfortunately, the Wildcats just couldn't find the hoop. And give Chaminade credit: the Silverswords made five of six free throws in that span to ice the game. Nor were they easy shots. All six foul shots came on one-and-one opportunities - and for the Silverswords, these were arguably the biggest free throws of their careers.

Foye was forced to foul with 50.3 seconds to go, after 'Nova failed to score - Chaminade's Henning made both ends of the one-and-one, giving the Silverswords a 49-46 lead. Sheridan managed to make one of two free throws on the next possession, cutting the lead to 49-47 with 32.4 to go - but best of all, Villanova successfully rebounded the miss, giving Wright a chance to call timeout with the ball, trailing by two with 26.1 to play. But 'Nova would never score again - Nardi turned the ball over, trying to drive the lane on the next possession. After being fouled immediately, Chaminade's Reyes again completed a one-and-one with 13.9 seconds to go, giving them a 51-47 lead. With Chaminade playing cautious defense, Chris Charles converted a semi-contested layup with 6.8 seconds remaining, cutting it to 51-49. After being fouled, Stigall hit the first free throw (the REALLY pressure-packed one), but missed the second, giving the 'Cats life. It was still a one-possession game. But Foye's three-point attempt, coming with less than three seconds left, was off the mark, sending the 'Cats down to defeat.

I wouldn't panic, though. Let's face it, the 'Cats had been laughing uproariously in the face of the basketball Grim Reaper thus far this season. They crushed Temple in a game in which - on paper - they had no business even being competitive, let alone winning in a blowout. Less than 36 hours later, they had to travel to California, play a game at 10 AM local time against a Division III opponent on its home floor with its fans and students screaming. And not just any Division III opponent - one that loves to run up and down the floor and score 100 points a contest. And then fly to Hawaii, and play at 9 AM against another lowly opponent whose season (and college legacy) would be made by a victory. And do all of the above with a shorthanded roster, the composition of which fluctuates from game to game, using some players that had never played a minute of college basketball, others who had played only negligible ones. The basketball gods were bound to catch up with them eventually.

Villanova did not play especially badly. (I've seen them - in situations with far more talented and experienced players - play a hell of a lot worse than they did today.) They weren't particularly sloppy and they didn't commit outrageous mistakes. The Wildcats shot a respectable 43% from the floor, while holding the Silverswords to 35%. The 'Cats committed 18 turnovers, but (for better or worse) that's not historically unusual. They just played like what they are- a bunch of remarkably inexperienced players. The Wildcats' entire team consisted of freshmen and sophomores. Only Foye and Ray had any meaningful experience. Chris Charles basically hasn't played basketball in over a year: he redshirted last year, and he didn't even play that much during his true freshman season in 2001-02. (For that matter, his high school career was truncated when his Milwaukee high school abruptly disbanded its program.) Mike Claxton played 14 minutes last season. And when you're forced to play with really inexperienced players, often you will lose.

So the fact that they lost to a Chaminade team which was - to put it mildly - highly motivated, under extraordinarily arduous logistical circumstances, isn't anything to be too upset about. These games are the biggest of the season to a Chaminade player, and for the Wildcats it's just another game on the schedule. Granted, it would have been nice to have pulled victory from the jaws of defeat and have the game just be a footnote, but it didn't work out that way.

Hopefully, the 'Cats can turn it around tomorrow.

Go Wildcats!

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