Thursday, November 27, 2003

Ohio State Buckeyes Bounce Villanova, 67-66, in 5th-Place Game, in the Maui Invitational Tournament

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

The Villanova Wildcats completed their surreal journey across the globe, with a tough loss to Ohio State in the fifth place game of the Maui Invitational on Wednesday afternoon, at the Lahaina Civic Center. 'Nova finished sixth in the eight-team field, emerging with one victory in three tries, including a loss to Division II host Chaminade.

This trip did not go as well as 'Nova's last trip to Maui. In 1995, Villanova's last appearance in the Maui Classic, the Wildcats won the tournament, a conquest made especially memorable by a victory over Dean Smith's North Carolina squad, which boasted Antawn Jamieson and Vince Carter.

Villanova trailed badly at halftime, 39-24, but fought back to make Ohio State sweat out crunch time. The Buckeyes could muster only one basket during the final five minutes, keeping the Wildcats alive. 'Nova kept the game close, battling to the very end, but ultimately came up a little short. Mike Nardi nailed a clutch 3 just as time ran out - the Villanova faithful were hoping as it was in the air that perhaps a fraction of a second might remain, but it was too late - the clock was all zeroes when the shot went through the net. Tony Stockman led Ohio State with 17 points, while Terence Dials added 12 points and nine boards.

For 'Nova, scoring was remarkably well-distributed; four of 'Nova's six players reached double figures. The backcourt of Allan Ray and Randy Foye once again led the way, scoring 21 and 18 points respectively; Foye added eight assists, but he struggled from the floor (he made only 6 of 17 attempts). Chris Charles scored ten points on 5-7 shooting and hauled in five rebounds. Mike Nardi also contributed 11 points.

'Nova fell to 3-2 overall, while Ohio State improved to 2-2. It was only the schools' third time facing each other, the second time since 1939, and the first meeting since the Watergate era - they had last met on December 30, 1974, with 'Nova winning 87-86. (Ohio State now leads all-time, 2-1.)

Villanova was once again hamstrung by long-distance-call-induced suspensions. Coach Jay Wright was once again only able to use a limited number of players: as noted above, only six Wildcats saw action (Foye, Ray, Nardi, Will Sheridan, Charles, and Mike Claxton). It easily made the difference in a one-point loss. Since Claxton played only seven minutes - basically, all of the starters played the entire game. (And some of Claxton's minutes came solely due to Charles' foul trouble - he played only 35 minutes before fouling out.)

Overall, Villanova's effort was hampered by terrible defense - Ohio State shot 54% from the floor, and when that happens, usually you don't lose by just one. The weakness underneath, with just Charles and Sheridan available, was clearly evident. And the Wildcats were lucky that they weren't completely buried by the Buckeyes, before the game even really started. Ohio State raced out of the blocks to leads of 11-3 and 24-10, the latter coming off a Stockman triple with just over eight minutes to play in the first half. The Buckeyes' first-half advantage peaked at 17 with just under four minutes to go, when Stockman's jumper doubled up Villanova at 34-17. Ray singlehandedly kept the 'Cats in it, scoring Villanova's final seven points of the half, which ended at 39-24.

Ohio State was able to maintain a healthy lead for much of the second half. It held a 13 point advantage at 43-30 lead after a Dials hook shot. Although 'Nova eroded the lead somewhat over the next few minutes, the Buckeyes boosted it back to 55-42 near the midpoint of the second half. They continued to lead by as many as 12, after Stockman hit another jumper at the 5:50 mark to put the tally at 60-48. The Wildcats plugged away, getting it down to seven, when Brandon Fuss-Cheatham (one of the truly memorable names among Villanova opponents, through the years) made a free throw to push it back to eight at the under-four minute timeout.

Villanova was undaunted, however. The Wildcats somehow found an offensive explosion, embarking on a 8-1 run at a fantastic time. Nardi drained a three with 1:42 to play to make it 64-63 - while OSU went cold. The Villanova bench was up yelling and screaming and waving towels, exhorting their teammates to continue the rally.

Unfortunately, the 'Cats couldn't get over the hump. As it turned out, OSU led in this contest, from buzzer to buzzer. With 50 seconds to go, clinging to the 64-63 lead, the Buckeyes turned the ball over. Foye was unable to make the front end of a one-and-one, and Stockman artfully dodged Villanova's defense to lay it in, putting OSU up 66-63 with 32 seconds to play. Foye had a chance to redeem himself, on the next possession, but missed a triple with about 15 seconds left. Fuss-Cheatham made only one of two free throws, but it was a big one - the one that transformed the contest from a one-possession to a two-possession game. (And it turned out to make the difference, after Nardi hit the three at the buzzer to cut it to one.)

On the whole, the Wildcats acquitted themselves admirably in Hawaii. Perhaps my expectations were too low, but I anticipated only one victory in three games (I assumed it would be over Chaminade, naturally). So I'm not disappointed. The Wildcats won one game and lost two others in nail-biters. One factor that might have helped 'Nova: the building was air-conditioned, for the first time in tournament history. Given that it was 80 degree weather, in a small building, the undermanned 'Cats would have been particularly susceptible to the fatigue-inducing effects of the heat. And thus, the fact that the AC was rolling was probably a break for them.

The Wildcats will now enjoy a substantial break from the grueling schedule, which included four games in five days, across 13,000 miles, three different time zones, and all three NCAA Divisions. They don't return to action for nine days, until the December 6 Big Five Classic at the Palestra, where they will take on La Salle. They will return to the grand old building three days later to face Penn.

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