Sunday, December 28, 2003

Santa Comes Late to Pavilion, As Wildcats Receive Gift of Easy Victory Over UNC-Greensboro

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Santa brought a late Christmas gift to the Villanova faithful on Sunday, as
the Wildcats closed out 2003 against UNC-Greensboro at the Pavilion, on an
unseasonably warm December afternoon. The heat wasn't just outside the building,
however; the Wildcats annihilated UNCG in a highly entertaining contest,
84-63, in the first-ever meeting between the schools. It was the kind of
satisfying holiday victory which always brightens the Christmas spirit of the Villanova fan. The game was punctuated throughout by frequent crowd-pleasing dunks,
chiefly from Curtis Sumpter and Randy Foye, who each finished with 23 points.

'Nova improved to 8-2 overall, while the Spartans fell to 4-7 overall. In an
otherwise disastrous afternoon for the Spartans, Ronnie Burrell led their
squad with 21 points on outstanding 10-14 shooting (many of them from short
range); he was quite a force, especially in the first half (and he added seven
rebounds, to boot). With a trio of victories over Northeastern, Columbia, and
UNCG over the last two weeks or so, Villanova has now completed the regretfully
brief cupcake portion of the schedule. They must now resume tangling with
genuine competition come 2004: a trip to national powerhouse Kansas (the defending
NCAA runner-up), on national television, comes at the end of the week. But
coach Jay Wright and his staff must have been tremendously satisfied with not
just the outcome, but the awesome firepower the 'Cats displayed in dismantling
the Spartans. Granted, UNCG was coming off a brutal Missouri/Maryland/Villanova trip, hitting three power-conference schools in one swing, but Villanova dominated this opponent as it hasn't done since the opening night witching-hour victory over Temple, back on November 14.

The game was also noteworthy for the first appearance of Derrick Snowden this
season, plagued by phone-call suspensions and injuries during the first nine
games. Coming off the bench, Snowden played ten solid, if unspectacular
minutes (and emphatically demonstrated his return by - in that brief spell -
getting called for that hook he frequently uses to get past an opponent).

It's unusual to have a game when one team is NEVER in the game, but that's
what happened today. From the opening tip-off, UNCG never showed even the
faintest signs of a pulse, even in a game scheduled to permit UNCG's Jay Joseph (a
native of North Wales and graduate of North Penn High School in central
Montgomery County, Pa.) to have a homecoming appearance. Quite the contrary:
Villanova took quick control of the game, rocketing out to a 22-4 lead and never
allowing the lead to slip below 12 points for the balance of the half. (Joseph
had a solid game, in what was undoubtedly one of the few opportunities for his
family and friends to watch him play. He finished with 10 points, two
rebounds and two steals.)

Any thoughts the Spartans may have entertained, regarding a
holiday-hangover-induced upset, were quickly dashed when Ray, Foye and Sumpter hit
back-to-back-to-back triples in the early going, swelling the early score to 17-4 and
effectively ending the contest before it even got started. The Spartans called a
timeout at the 13:45 mark, immediately after the barrage, to try to pile up
some sandbags - but they were hopelessly ineffective. 'Nova basically had its
way with this team for 40 full minutes, without interruption. And Villanova's
dominance was even more startling, after the ordeal in which they had to
engage to get past old buddy Joe Jones and Columbia on Monday night.

When the teams returned from the timeout, Mike Nardi added another triple,
followed by a two-handed dunk from Sumpter (fed to him by Snowden), pushing the
lead to 22-4 and UNCG into a deep abyss, out of which it never returned. They
would NEVER get the lead down to single digits, for the rest of the game.
With about 5-6 minutes left in the first half, the Spartans hit what passed for
their high-water mark, chipping the deficit down to 12 twice, thanks to a
two-handed dunk from Burrell which made it 30-18 (and a Ray Bristow basket got it
to 32-20 shortly after). But that was as close as they ever got. Even that
relatively competitive score didn't last long, as Sumpter scored four quick
points around the four minute mark to boost the lead back to 17, 38-21, and
Villanova's lead hovered in that range for most of the game. For only the second
time all year, Villanova can claim an unadulterated rout of an opponent (and
ironically, the routs have come against Temple on the road, shorthanded - and
the strongest of the three cupcake opponents at home).

'Nova wrapped up the first half in style, taking a commanding 47-28 lead into
the locker room and leaving the Pavilion faithful far more contented at
intermission than they had been in a long, long time. Sumpter was simply a monster
in the opening half, scoring 19 of his 23 points on 8-12 shooting and
grabbing five boards. Buoyed by the sophomore forward, Villanova shot a strong 47%
from the floor for the half.

Unfortunately, the second half wasn't as cool as the first - which had moved
smoothly and with a minimum of turnovers and fouls on both sides. With both
teams having recognized that the game was effectively over, the quality of play
began to deteriorate during what amounted to an entire HALF of garbage time.
Nonetheless, Villanova clearly played strong five-man basketball on Sunday
afternoon, something of a lost art in the contemporary college game. 'Nova
finished with 16 assists on 29 baskets, reflecting wise passing and unselfish play.

The Wildcats' lead continued to mount through the second half, after they had
led by 19 at halftime. UNCG kept pace through the first five minutes, after
play resumed, but the difficulties of playing from behind began to wear on
them (they weren't tired, as they constantly ran out a full array of
substitutes). The most significant sequence took place around the nine minute mark.
Foye, with an unimpeded lane to the hoop, uncharacteristically decided to stuff
the ball in two-handed fashion, and the 'Cats eased up a bit in admiration - and
they now enjoyed a 22 point lead at 68-46. Unfortunately, Burrell seized the
opportunity 'Nova had given him, and immediately went down the other way for
an uncontested dunk of his own. Coach Wright was not pleased with this
development and called timeout, something which you ordinarily don't do with your
own team cruising with a big lead, in order to convey his displeasure to his

At the 4:49 mark, Foye went in for another dunk, which gave 'Nova its largest
lead of the game, at 28 (80-52). Fortunately, UNCG did not reply with an
uncontested dunk at the other end, this time. The rest of the way was
undistinguished, with the exception of Sumpter's departure at the 1:23 mark (he was
lauded by the crowd for his 23 points). Kudos go out to Ross Condon, who made a
cameo along with teammates Tom Grace, Baker Dunleavy and Mike Claxton near the
buzzer. However, Condon managed to score Villanova's final two points during
his brief time on the court, and it left the score 84-63.

As noted, Snowden saw action sparingly, but it was a step in the right
direction. In contrast, Jason Fraser, due to his ongoing injuries, did not see
action at all. Marcus Austin and Andreas Bloch saw limited action, combining for
13 minutes. The bench was the only area in which UNCG bested 'Nova, as the
Spartans' bench racked up 17 points to Villanova's 10.

The Wildcats' next big challenge will come at #12 Kansas on Friday night, at
Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas, one of college basketball's most
storied and frenzied venues. A victory would be a VERY impressive

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Wildcats Barely Keep Up with Jones, But Tame Lions

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

On Monday night, Villanova welcomed an old friend back for the holidays, as
former Villanova assistant Joe Jones brought his Columbia Lions back to the
Pavilion, in his first year at the helm of the Ivy League program. However, the
Wildcats BARELY tamed the Lions, finally escaping with a 74-66 victory in a
game which was competitive throughout. Columbia trailed by only four with just
over a minute to play, and was more than capable of pulling off what would
have been a genuinely stunning upset (and one which, coupled with the Maui
Classic loss to Chaminade, might have ended any NCAA aspirations for Villanova this

It took Villanova surprisingly long to tame the Lions, given that Columbia
had only two wins (against a mind-boggling 25 losses) all last season and did
not have a dramatic infusion of talent (other than Jones himself) over the
off-season. Far from it - they lost their top two scorers from last season, to
boot. Jones' charges had successfully mustered two victories in six tries thus
far, ousting Sacred Heart and Stony Brook. And they outrebounded every opponent
so far. But other than the emotions stirred by Coach Jones' return to the
Main Line, where he spent six seasons as an assistant to both Jay Wright and
Steve Lappas:

there was little reason to think that the Columbia Lions (the owners of a
0-14 mark in Ivy League play last year, and which hasn't played in a postseason
tournament since 1968) would put up one of the most spirited and gallant fights
of ANY cupcake opponent at the Pavilion in recent years. It might not be out
of the question that Columbia has made their last trip to the Pavilion for
quite a while. Obviously, there's nowhere for Columbia to go but up; they can
only get better and more talented, as Jones' skills, especially in recruiting,
come to fruition. (Whether due to the presence of his former assistant on the
other bench, or perhaps a manifestation of the holiday spirit, coach Jay
Wright was extraordinarily mellow during tonight's game. Jones, however, was
quite animated, as would be expected. The crowd gave him a standing ovation
during introductions, which was well-deserved.)

Villanova improved to 7-2 overall, in only its second Pavilion appearance;
Columbia fell to 2-5 overall. Believe it or not, Columbia actually played
Villanova at the Spectrum once - and won. I'm not sure if the outcome or the venue
was more surprising; on December 29, 1969, Columbia faced Villanova in the
Quaker City Tournament and triumphed, 76-64, at the old Spectrum. By winning
tonight, Villanova improved to 3-1 in the overall series; the teams had played
recently, on December 2, 2000, at the Pavilion, with the 'Cats cruising to a
80-64 victory.

Four Wildcats reached double figures: Randy Foye (20 points) , Allan Ray (19
points), Curtis Sumpter (16 points), and Mike Nardi (14 points). For some
reason, Sumpter did not return to the game after the under-4 timeout in the
second half; Bloch seemed to take his minutes. The balanced attack came in large
part because of another shorthanded roster (although tonight, not due to
suspensions). Marcus Austin and Derrick Snowden, despite now being absolved of
phone-call-induced suspensions, did not step onto the floor, while Jason Fraser
played less than a minute, in the first half, before being removed for good.
For Columbia, Dragutin Kravic led the Lions with 17 points, while Matt Preston
contributed 13 points.

Villanova was lucky to win this game. And the great irony was that on paper,
they looked surprisingly strong. They committed a shockingly low and had
nine steals, their most all year. Their shooting percentage (43%) was mediocre
but not horrible. Four guys scored at least 14 points, which usually is a sure
recipe for victory, and Sumpter missed a double-double by only one rebound.
Columbia didn't have any numbers that leapt off the stat sheet.

Basically, Villanova was never able to effectively exploit its advantage in
size over its Ivy League opponent. Jason Fraser and Marcus Austin combined to
play less than a minute. Together with Chris Charles (and those three players
should be the heart of the frontcourt/rebounding cohort, despite Will
Sheridan's strong start) they combined for three points and two rebounds (all from
Charles) in 17 minutes. It's going to be enormously difficult for Villanova to
do well in the rugged, physical Big East unless it can start getting minutes
(let alone points and rebounds) from its bangers in the paint. Villanova and
Columbia deadlocked in rebounding at 34 apiece, which is astounding, looking at
the rosters (and Columbia actually outrebounded the 'Cats for most of the
game, until 'Nova started crashing the boards at crunch time). That and some
strong three-point shooting from the Lions in the second half (Columbia was 6-13
from beyond the arc in the second stanza, after going 4-13 from that range in
the first half), made the game far more competitive than it should have been.

Also, it wasn't like Columbia was only in the game at the end. In the first
half, the Lions were ahead at the under 16 timeout, 8-7; the under 12 timeout,
14-11, and the under 8 timeout, 20-15. It took a powerful run from 'Nova at
that point to reassert its authority and retake the lead. Villanova rattled
off nine quick points to take a 24-20 lead, the last four coming from Ray, on
two divergent shots: a layup and a 16-footer. It hadn't helped that Foye
picked up two quick fouls, and coach Jay felt obliged to return him to the floor as
Columbia made a game of it; now Wright could sit him back down, with the lead.

But Columbia hung in there, and trailed only 30-29 at intermission. (The
Lions would have been ahead at intermission, except that Preston missed a layup at
the buzzer, and he was arguably fouled on the play.) The halftime stats
indicated that while neither team was shooting well (both were under 35%), the key
was the rebounding: Columbia held a 23-18 advantage. And Villanova had made
only 3 of its 12 three-point attempts (25%), even worse than Columbia's 4-13
(28%). The Wildcats' best performers were Ray, who had 11 points, while
Sumpter had 10.

The stage seemed set for a typical Big East/cupcake clash at the Pavilion in
December: scrappy cupcake hangs around for a half, the distracted Wildcats
(with visions of going home dancing in their heads) gather at halftime and
resolve to crush the cupcake in the second half and put the game out of reach. As
the second half went on, it appeared that this tried-and-true paradigm would
once again hold. Villanova began constructing a solid lead. Foye banged a ball
in off the glass to make it 40-35, leading to a timeout from Columbia about 4
and a half minutes in. With around 12 minutes to play, the lead had risen to
51-41, when Foye went to the foul line for two shots. He missed both, which
was part of an alarming trend for Foye, the team's premier foul shooter.
Going into the game, he had missed only three free throws the entire season.
After missing those two, he had missed four just against Columbia.

The misses didn't dent Foye's confidence, though: he scored on two of the
next three possessions. First, he hit a three-foot bucket to make it 53-43.
Nardi then hit Sheridan with a bounce pass along the left baseline, which
Sheridan stuffed; and Foye led a three-on-three down the floor for another layup,
pushing the lead to 12, 57-45, Villanova's largest of the game with about 9:30 to
play. Villanova still hadn't committed ANY turnovers in the second half, a
remarkable fact.

But Columbia was undeterred by the fact that the Wildcats - playing on their
home floor with their supportive crowd - seemed to be well in control. The
Lions roared back with a 8-0 run over the next three minutes, pulling back to
within 57-53 and unsettling the Pavilion crowd considerably, with a little over
six minutes to play.

Villanova counterattacked, and Ray appeared to have delivered the knockout
punch by nailing a three at the 3:20 mark, which put 'Nova up by eight, 64-56,
and shortly after added a basket to make it 66-58 with 2:20 to play. At the
2:08 mark, Chris Charles drew a foul, sending him to the line for a one-and-one
to pad the eight point lead. At this point, the Lions made their final
charge. Charles missed the front end of the one-and-one, and Columbia got the
rebound. Kravic hit a three: 66-61. Charles replied with a basket underneath -
but Kravic hit another three, making the score an uncomfortable 68-64 with well
over a minute to play.

On the next four possessions, Villanova had two free throws, and (ironically)
four different Wildcats each made one of two free throws. But the failure to
execute at the foul line had the effect of keeping the Lions in the game. In
the midst of all the free throws, Kravic converted a one-and-one to pull them
back within four, 70-66, with a minute to go - but Columbia ran out of gas,
failing to score the rest of the way. 'Nova started piling up the free throws,
and escaped with a 74-66 victory. Hugs were exchanged by Jones and the VU
coaches after the game.

Perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising, though. Obviously, Coach Jones knows
the Wildcats' players' strengths and weaknesses like the back of his hand (he
recruited a lot of them) and that advantage probably offset a lot of
Columbia's weaknesses. And the game clearly meant a lot more to the Lions than to the

Nonetheless, this was still a team that Villanova should have

clobbered, especially at quasi-full-strength and playing at home. Most years, there
is a chasm between Ivy League powers Penn and Princeton and the rest of the
league. And Columbia is not a just a mediocre Ivy team, but the worst team in
the league, one that couldn't win a single game in it last year. Villanova
shouldn't have needed to make free throws down the stretch to escape with an
eight point victory, or hold only a four-point lead with a minute to go. The team
that showed up tonight, ought not to go to Kansas in a few days, because the
results will be extraordinarily hideous if it does.

The Wildcats will enjoy their Christmas break, and will not return to action
until Sunday, Dec. 28, when they take on UNC-Greensboro at the Pavilion.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Sumpter, Villanova Send Northeastern Out to Sea, 74-55

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

On Friday, Villanova feasted on an early cupcake in Northeastern, 74-55, in the home opener at the Pavilion. Curtis Sumpter voraciously enjoyed this creampuff opponent, feasting for a career-high 39 points on a phenomenal 16-20 shooting night. Villanova's defense held Northeastern to a miserable 34% success rate from the floor, as it won its third consecutive game and improved to 6-2 overall.

Northeastern fell to 3-4, led by Miami transfer Marcus Barnes's 16 points - although Barnes had a miserable night shooting, hitting only 4 out of 20 of his attempts. Read on!

At the Pavilion, the Villanova Wildcats and Northeastern Huskies met for the first time in over 20 years and only the second time ever. Naturally, Villanova's rivalry with another New England set of Huskies takes precedence - and ironically, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun once coached at Northeastern, back in the day.

For better or worse, tonight's contest between the two schools was a lot less exciting than the inaugural meeting, on March 14, 1982, in the second round of the NCAA tournament. In those 48-team days, the top 16 seeds enjoyed byes in the first round.

Thus, Rollie Massimino's #3-seeded 'Cats enjoyed a bye, while #6 St. Joseph's was upset by #11 Northeastern (one of the lowest seeded teams in the tournament). In the second round, the Huskies proved to be all the 'Cats could handle; it took three overtimes for the Wildcats to subdue them and escape with a 76-72 victory in Uniondale, New York.

(Ironically, thirteen years later, another third-seeded Villanova team faced another lowly ranked
opponent in the NCAA tournament, in New York State; unfortunately, it didn't fare as well as triple overtime, being ousted by Old Dominion.)

But some things have changed significantly: the Huskies' Perry Moss scored 31 points in that game- and he was the ONLY player in the entire NCAA field that year to break the 30 point plateau in the tournament. (Stallball had come into vogue and there was still no shot clock or three-point line to boost scoring.)

In marked contrast to March drama, there wasn't as much riding on this game. However, it was still remarkably entertaining, for a cupcake opponent.

One reason was the presence of Barnes, a transfer from Miami, who can play. But by far more important was the virtuoso performance of Sumpter, who was a veritable offensive juggernaut, whenever he touched the ball. (Of games I've seen in
person, it was among the finest offensive performances I've ever seen.)

It's not uncommon to say that a player singlehandedly won a game for his team, but it IS uncommon to suggest that an individual singlehandedly blew out an opponent - but that's what happened tonight. Consider it from this angle:
Northeastern's entire TEAM defeated Sumpter by a solid - but far from overwhelming -
55-39 margin. And no other Wildcat even reached double figures. (For good
measure, Sumpter decided to lead Villanova in rebounding also, pulling down nine
boards and missing a double-double by the narrowest of margins.)

Sumpter took command of the game, virtually before it began. Under his
leadership, while the Pavilion faithful were still filing in, Villanova took a 12-2
lead on Northeastern- with 10 of the 12 points courtesy of Sumpter. A couple
of minutes later, at the 13:38 mark, it was 15-7, and Sumpter had 13 of the
15 Wildcat points. The students, taking a last respite of basketball before
the unpleasant rigors of final exams, were thrilled to see their beloved
Wildcats for the first time this season, and cheered lustily throughout the game,
especially for Sumpter. But other Wildcats were included as well. When Andreas
Bloch entered the game at the 14:06 mark for Allan Ray, he was greeted with
loud cheers and a syncopated chant of "Bloch! Bloch! Bloch!" Another large
cheer was reserved for the return of Jason Fraser, who had been out due to
injuries and the phone-call-scandal suspensions; he hadn't played a minute this
season. When coach Jay Wright put Fraser into the contest, at the 10:10 mark of
the first half, Fraser drew a big cheer and a "Jason Fraser! Jason Fraser!"
chant of his own.

Villanova began to pull away at this point, and Northeastern kept frantically
trying to pile up sandbags with timeouts. By the under-eight-minute media
timeout, at 7:11, the Wildcats had boosted their lead to 24-7. With 6:48 to
play, Will Sheridan threw down an impressive dunk, exciting the fans and giving
'Nova a 26-7 advantage. It wound up 34-21 at halftime, and it appeared that
the Huskies were just going to be a speed bump as Coach Wright fine-tuned the
squad for the challenges of Big East play. Sumpter had 19 points by halftime
alone, while the two key freshmen, Sheridan and Mike Nardi, each had contributed
five points.

At halftime, the fans were asked to wait in their seats for a ceremony, and
it was for the 2002-03 women's basketball team, Big East champions and Elite
Eight qualifiers. It was noted over the PA that the women had broken
Connecticut's unbeaten streak in Big East play and ended a reign of nine consecutive Big
East titles for the Huskies. And that Villanova had never previously been in
the Elite Eight on the women's side. Each player was announced individually,
and each received a nice hand as she went out to claim her share of the
hardware (the championship rings). And a banner was unveiled, reading "2003 Big
East Women's Basketball Champions".

Villanova seemed to let up considerably in the second half, feeling that the
game was well in hand, and Northeastern soon clawed their way back into the
game. Less than three minutes into the second half, it was 38-30 and the fairly
large student crowd was starting to get restless, beginning a "Let's Go
'Nova" chant. A typical play in this sequence:

Northeastern had struggled to move the ball inside, and had gotten hit for
two 35 second clock violations (on consecutive possessions) in the first half.
Trailing 41-33, they again scuffled trying to get the ball in, and with the
shot clock teetering from "1" to "0" - Randy Foye was whistled for bumping
Barnes out of bounds, bailing the Huskies out of what would have been another
turnover. He made one of two free throws, cutting the margin to seven.

Thus, by the under-16 minute media timeout, they had crawled back to 41-34
and perhaps might have made it a game. Whatever Coach Wright said in the
timeout, it must have made a difference, as Villanova quickly took control of the
game coming out of it. On the first possession after the timeout, Sumpter
swooped in and threw down a dunk; after Barnes missed a shot at the other end,
Sheridan echoed Sumpter with a dunk of his own. The dunks were impressive and got
the crowd back into the game - but most importantly, deflated Northwestern's
momentum. They never seriously threatened 'Nova after that, although they did
nip at their heels a bit. After Sheridan's dunk, Barnes replied with a LONG
three, launched somewhere from Bryn Mawr - but Allan Ray came back with a
triple of his own, boosting the lead back to 48-37 with 12:41 to go.

At 10:39, Sumpter scored again to make it 50-37 - he now had 28 of
Villanova's 50 points, and the students began chanting "Curtis Sumpter". He kept them
on their feet after he scored again on the next possession, now with 30 of
'Nova's 52, and they resumed the chant. Sheridan contributed a devastating block
on somebody (couldn't see who) with 9:50 to play, and that got the fans going
as well.

Villanova's lead peaked at 23, when Sumpter (who else!) converted a pair of
free throws with 1:17 to play, giving 'Nova a 73-50 lead. Coach Wright then
took him out, to let him get a richly deserved (and long sustained) round of
applause from the Pavilion faithful. The crowd was also happy to see Baker
Dunleavy get some time in the last minute - he was fouled with a couple of seconds
left. (The foul was so unusual - the Husky just shoved him when he was
standing out on the perimeter with the ball, with three seconds to play and down by
18 points - that I wondered if the guy was trying to do Dunleavy a favor by
letting him take some foul shots. Or maybe he was just frustrated.) Dunleavy
missed the first but made the second, and he got a good hand, too, from the
crowd. (Ross Condon, Tom Grace, and Mike Claxton also made cameo appearances.)

The last ten minutes were sort of a twilight between a competitive game and
garbage time. While Northeastern never made a run, it was punctuated by a
remarkably large number of fouls, which made play choppy and hard to flow. While
it wouldn't have affected the outcome, the Huskies had a genuinely horrendous
evening at the free throw line, going an amazingly bad 9-23 from the line
(39%) to go with their 34% from the floor.

The only downside was that outside of Sumpter (obviously), Sheridan, and
Chris Charles, nobody else really brought their "A" game Friday night - only
Sumpter was in double figures. Kudos should go to Charles: he had six rebounds and
three blocks in limited action (16 minutes), and Fraser played just nine
minutes as he makes his way back from his injuries. Nardi had a disproportionate
number of boards (6) and seven assists, but went only 2-8 shooting and
committed six turnovers. Andreas Bloch played 14 minutes and while he didn't explode,
he did have a three-pointer.

Best of all, the last vestiges of the suspensions have now been swept away,
as Marcus Austin and Derrick Snowden served their final suspension game, and
Villanova will be at full strength for its next contest.

The Wildcats will now enjoy an extended, 11-day break from intercollegiate
competition, while they hunker down for exams. They won't resume play until
Monday, December 22, at the Pavilion, when they take on Columbia.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Villanova Leads Big Five With Win over Penn at Palestra, 75-65

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Villanova continued a remarkable run in City Series play, soaring to a 3-0 start in the Big Five after downing a scrappy but overmatched Penn team, 73-63, on Tuesday night at the Palestra. Coach Jay Wright has now beaten all City Series opponents, notching his first victory over the Quakers in three attempts. Mike Nardi led all scorers with 20 points, while three other Wildcats reached 13 or more points in an extraordinarily balanced attack. Curtis Sumpter had 18 points, while Randy Foye had 16 and Allan Ray 13.

For Penn, Adam Chubb led with 17 points prior to fouling out just before regulation ended (he played just 28 minutes), and Jeff Schiffner also had 13 points. Villanova improved to 5-2 overall, 3-0 City Series; Penn fell to 2-4 overall, 0-2 City Series. Villanova now leads Penn in the overall series, 34-17, and defeated the Quakers for the sixth time in eight tries. Penn won in 2002 and 2003; had the Quakers rallied and won tonight, it would have marked the first three-game Penn winning streak against 'Nova since defeating the Wildcats five straight times in the early 1970s (when Penn was a national powerhouse).

Only St. Joseph's now stands between 'Nova sweeping the City Series for the first time since the 2000-01 season. (I wrote before the season started that it "was plausible that Villanova could lose ALL of the City Series games." I did not - in marked contrast - believe that it was plausible for 'Nova to WIN all of the City Series games - although I'm very pleased to be wrong). Although that final game - that's going to be a huge boulder. The Hawks made short work of nefarious Boston College earlier that day at the Palestra.

Having just watched Penn live three days earlier, on the same floor, my initial thoughts were confirmed:

1) They are REALLY young.
2) They will get better.

On paper, like many Villanova/Penn matchups through the years, it was a game the Wildcats should have won, playing at full strength. But equally like many Villanova/Penn matchups through the years, it was a game that Penn came surprisingly close to winning, especially on its home floor. Two years ago, it actually pulled it off, taking 'Nova in overtime at the Palestra. And an exception: Penn walloped 'Nova at the First Union Center last year, in one of the least entertaining Big Five games ever played. The Quakers were the better team.

Unfortunately for the 2003-04 Quaker faithful, Penn lost most of its nucleus after last season and will need some time to retool for life after (the departed) Andy Toole. This team won't cut through the Ivies like a hot knife through butter, the way some of its recent predecessors have. But they'll be competitive. They might even take the automatic NCAA bid from the Ivy.

Fortunately, Villanova did not really encounter a major scare, throughout the course of the game. The Quakers bolted out to a quick 7-2 lead in the early going, but Villanova recovered nicely. The Wildcats embarked on a 19-5 run, taking a 21-12 lead and holding Penn scoreless for roughly six minutes. The Quakers never really seemed to have the moxie to take control of the game, although they hung around the whole game and made a late charge at the end. Penn really struggled with its outside shooting, which it had used to stay in the game against SJU on Saturday. Against the Hawks, Penn made 13 triples; against 'Nova, the Quakers made five, and converted only 25% of its attempts.

At the 15:36 mark, Foye scored on a layup, fed by Nardi, which made the score 38-29. There was some rippling cheering going through the large (especially for exam week) number of Villanova students who had made the trip down to the Palestra. On the next possession, Bloch drew a charge, and it looked as if the 'Cats would cruise to victory.

Six minutes later, 'Nova still led, 50-37, when Penn's Ibrahim Jaaber got an "and-one" opportunity. Penn's crowd (which was naturally, the majority) started to get into the game as Jaaber went to the line; it's rare that a missed free throw can really take the life out of a crowd, but in this case it did. 'Nova maintained its steady lead, and when Nardi hit two free throws to make it 60-47 with 4:19 to go. Villanova had all of the momentum, and the crowd began to orderly file out. But Penn got up off the floor and launched a 13-5 run, pulling dangerously close and giving some hope to their fans. The big play in this span was at the 1:53 mark: a massive rejection by a new Quaker, Eric Heil (a transfer from Lehigh) on a Villanova shot (I believe by Sumpter although I didn't have a good angle to see exactly who was the recipient). The Penn crowd was thrilled by the rejection, and although it didn't put any points on the scoreboard directly, it seemed to inspire them to keep fighting. An extremely drawn out endgame began during this process, with frequent fouls and timeouts. The high-water mark for the Quakers was when Charlie Copp converted a layup, rendering the lead just 65-60 with 1:14 to play.

Villanova didn't fully secure the game until a few seconds later, at the 57.4 seconds mark, when Charles adeptly took a charge from Chubb, who fouled out. The score was 67-60; had the call gone the other way, Chubb stays in, they get two points and possibly three. Now, they had nothing. It took the wind out of their sails. They never drew any closer than six points for the remainder of the game. Villanova padded its lead at the foul line, down the stretch - the 'Cats wound up making eight straight at one point and finished the game at a very strong 20-28 (71%) from the line. It helped make the difference. Penn's crowd was starting to feel its numerical strength, and had 'Nova missed a couple of free throws here and there, they could have crawled to within one possession VERY easily. Instead, every swish from the line was a rally killer.

Nardi's strong offensive performance made his turnover lapses pale in comparison; I was surprised that he had "only" five turnovers, as it seemed as if he was committing a lot more. At one point, Coach Wright took a couple of steps onto the floor and indicated how upset he was with Nardi - this took place with about 6:05 to play, after Nardi missed Chris Charles with a pass, turning the ball over. But Nardi atoned for it, after Penn failed to score on the ensuing possession, by scoring. Earlier in the second half, Nardi had thrown a pass to someone (I think it was Foye) who wasn't expecting it AT ALL (his back was turned), leading to an easy steal for Penn. Late in the game, at crunch time, Nardi failed to remain stationary while inbounding the ball after Penn had turned it over (the rule is that you can run up and down the baseline after a made basket or free throw, but not after ordinary whistles). This mistake led to another turnover which helped fuel Penn's comeback.

Unfortunately, the heroics of Andreas Bloch did not carry over from Saturday's virtuoso performance against La Salle, in which he banked a dozen points. I had been hoping it was due to some kind of Palestra magic. However, Bloch did contribute significantly to the victory. Although he didn't have his shooting touch from Saturday, Bloch had a pair of points, assists and rebounds, and he played 22 minutes (an unusual number of 2s in his box score line). He was annoying the Penn fans; I overheard one say, pointing at Bloch: "That guy must be, like, 40 years old. He must have held a position with the EAST German government." (For the record, at least officially, Bloch doesn't turn 22 till 2004.) Never did I dream the day would come when opponents would protest (or ever have a need to) the mere PRESENCE of Bloch on the Wildcat squad). He also had a new accomplishment: he fouled out for the first time EVER in his career, with 2:00 to go, trying to take a charge. (Bloch had never had more than three fouls in a single game.) The odds of Bloch ever fouling out of a game were pretty low, given that he was never likely to accumulate enough playing time to have a CHANCE of fouling out. So he's back in Coach Wright's good graces, clearly.

Rollouts and other signs were abundant at the Palestra. Most Penn signs focused on the phone-access-code scandal. "AT&T: the Unofficial Sponsor of Villanova Scandals." Someone on the 'Nova side brought something referring to Bishop Loughlin High, the alma mater of one Curtis Sumpter, but I was sitting too far away (and the sign's authors didn't contrast the colors effectively!) so I couldn't read the text.

Another Villanova fan, not willing to take a chance as to what network had the game, brought a sign which read on one side: Every viSit to PenN = A Win" for ESPN, and something for CSN on the back.

The game had a decent, respectable crowd, but was not sold out, despite a game involving Penn on its own campus. Exams for both schools probably had something to do with it, as did possibly the Big Five tripleheader (which had overshadowed this game, which now felt anticlimactic).

The 'Cats return to the Main Line for the first time this season, after such a long and bizarre odyssey. The home opener will come after three Big Five games and eight games overall. They will take on Northeastern at the Pavilion on Friday night in what hopefully should be an easy victory.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Mama Said Bloch You Out- Villanova KO's La Salle at Historic Palestra, 74-61

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

In the finale of the 3rd Annual Big Five Classic, Villanova held off a scrappy La Salle squad, 74-61, at the Palestra on Saturday night, helped by a banner day from senior Andreas Bloch. The German forward, making his season debut due to his phone-code suspension, stunned everyone by setting a career-high in minutes (30) and exploding for 12 points, the second-best game of his career and his best since the 2000-01 season. Three other Wildcats reached double figures, including Randy Foye, who went scoreless in the first half but revived in the second half, pouring in 19 to lead the 'Cats.... Meanwhile, La Salle's Gary Neal led all scorers with a magnificent 32 points.

Villanova improved to 4-2 overall, and 2-0 in City Series play, while struggling La Salle fell to 1-5 overall, 0-1 Big Five. In earlier action at the Palestra, Temple knocked off a gallant Drexel team in the opener, while St. Joseph's stopped Penn in the middle contest.

Bloch once scored 51 points (and grabbed 16 rebounds to boot!) in a German game, one which he cited when asked to describe "his best game ever". While the chances are exceptionally low that he'll ever pour in 51 points as a Wildcat in a single game, coach Jay Wright would likely be thrilled to have half a dozen pts/game from the enigmatic senior, let alone an even dozen. The native of Wurmlingen, Germany, has played sparingly in his three years, scoring only 72 points (and only 24 in the last two seasons, after Wright took over from Steve Lappas). And he hasn't played a minute this season, before tonight, due to his phone-code suspension.

So needless to say, it was a bit surprising when Bloch turned out to be Wright's secret weapon tonight, coming out of nowhere to score 12 off the bench. La Salle never knew what hit them. (How could they? He's not on much film.) Bloch hit four out of six field goal attempts, including three triples, and delighted the Villanova side of the gym every time he did so (he is a crowd favorite). He played 30 minutes tonight; he had never played more than 18 before. (You may remember his other out-of-the-blue performance, as a freshman in 2000-01. Bloch came off the bench to nail four triples at the then-First Union Center to spur the Wildcats to a 74-60 victory over Connecticut on February 10, 2001.)

While the dynamic duo of Foye and Allan Ray led the charge with 19 and 17 points respectively, you EXPECT them to do that. You don't expect a dozen out of Bloch - and so he was clearly the difference between a solid victory and either defeat or a razor-thin one (depending on one's level of optimism regarding 'Nova's pulling out a tight one at the wire).

Not that the Wildcats didn't play well as a team. Aside from their usual troubles in taking care of the ball (20 turnovers, a bad number even by Villanova standards), the Wildcats led La Salle in all but one statistical category (La Salle had 10 steals to 'Nova's 6). Villanova shot well (51%) and La Salle was awful (34%). 'Nova outrebounded the Explorers 36-34, and shot 75% from the foul line, compared to La Salle's 62%. The game was also punctuated by nine Villanova blocked shots, three coming from freshman Will Sheridan.

Also, it was kind of nice for a change, to not have either a loss to La Salle or a nailbiter victory (although Villanova hasn't enjoyed a truly decisive victory over the Explorers, since Kerry Kittles and Co. annihilated them 90-50 on Feb. 12, 1996.) Villanova/La Salle contests have traditionally been close - and so it seems only fitting that Villanova now holds, by the slimmest possible margin, a 27-26 lead in the all-time series. Villanova won for the sixth time in the last eight tries against La Salle and its third straight over the Explorers at the Palestra.

It wasn't always easy, though - the final score is deceptive, as the game was considerably more competitive than it would indicate. La Salle actually led 33-29 at intermission, 36-29 after a three by Steven Smith, and 43-39 as late as the 14:17 mark, on a layup by Mike St. John. 'Nova won the last 14:17 by an impressive 35-18 margin, making it look as if the 'Cats had won going away.

The Wildcats got off to a strong start, beginning the game on a 10-4 run. It culminated in a dunk from Chris Charles, sparking some enthusiasm from the Villanova partisans. And this was in spite of Randy Foye heading to the bench, less than three minutes into the game. He had picked up two quick fouls by the 17:56 mark. La Salle fought back with a 10-3 run of its own, capped with a basket from Smith off a steal from Mike Cleaves. This gave the Explorers their first lead at 14-13. Villanova quickly retook the lead, however, and didn't relinquish it until the 2:06 mark. Cleaves's basket made it 27-26, brought joy to the La Salle half (which was only half-full, unfortunately), and turned the Villanova stands sullen. La Salle had intermittently applied various levels of pressure, and they turned it up a couple of notches as the first half drew to a close. In a three-minute span near the end of the half, Villanova had four turnovers (by four different Wildcats), and La Salle climbed back into the game (with Neal scoring six straight points for La Salle at one point). It didn't help that one of the turnovers was an offensive foul on Mike Nardi, his third of the game. La Salle's lead ranged from two to five points, but remained solid at the first-half buzzer.

At halftime, no numbers especially stood out, with the possible exception of the foul totals for both teams (11 for 'Nova and 10 for La Salle, both high for a first half). One big problem throughout the contest was the aforementioned foul trouble for Nardi. With Derrick Snowden out with a knee injury, Nardi is THE point guy - and he was on the bench for a lot of the night. The freshman played only 21 minutes before fouling out with 1:22 to go (although the game was already in hand for 'Nova at that point).

When play resumed, La Salle's lead momentarily hit its zenith at seven, but then the Wildcats began to reassert themselves, led by Foye and Bloch. For a seven minute-plus span, from the 15:53 mark (when Curtis Sumpter had a dunk) to the 8:32 mark (when Sumpter - once again - added a bucket), ALL of Villanova's points came from those two. In that period, the pair converted a 37-34 deficit into a 53-48 lead, outscoring La Salle 19-11 by themselves (including 11 straight from Foye at one point). Right after the final three in that run, when Foye nailed a triple to make it 53-48 at the 9:59 mark, the Villanova crowd grew very exhilarated and started making a lot of noise, and you could definitely tell the momentum had shifted the 'Cats' way.

La Salle kept countering, though, but the real psychological blow was Bloch hammering down another three at the 6:27 mark, making it 60-54, Villanova. It once again brought the Wildcats' fans to their feet, screaming for Bloch, and the 'Nova bench bounced off their chairs to congratulate him. That play - although the game was obviously still well within La Salle's reach - seemed to finish them off. They never drew any closer than four and were generally listless.

Whether by accident or design, at this critical moment in the game, some of the traditional Big Five/Palestra rollouts began to emerge. First, Villanova demanded that La Salle "Go Exploring for a Win Somewhere Else..." but La Salle replied with, "Next Time Dial Down the Center" (the mantra of Carrot Top).

Villanova began to pad its lead, hitting double-digits for the first time at 66-56 at the 3:40 mark, and never letting it dip below eight for the rest of the game. The biggest lead of the game, 15 points, came after Sumpter drained a free throw to make it 74-59. At the 29.8 second mark, Bloch and Allan Ray were removed, with the Villanova fans giving Bloch a tremendous and well-deserved ovation. The game's final points came fittingly when Neal scored his 31st and 32nd points on a fast-break with 22 seconds to go, rendering the final score: 74-61, 'Nova.

'Nova generally played in a far more spirited way, hustling after more balls and playing more aggressive defense. This can reasonably be attributed to the fact that this was the first time all season that Wright has had the opportunity to play with anything remotely resembling a full complement of players. The phone-code suspensions have nearly run their course at this point; Marcus Austin and Snowden are the only Wildcats remaining who have to atone for their role in it. Austin didn't play tonight, and Snowden is still hurt (and his suspension can't be served until he recovers). So, basically, Wright was missing (at least due to suspensions) only Austin tonight, a bench player. The 'Cats also didn't seem to show much rust, given that they hadn't played since the day before Thanksgiving (the loss to Ohio State in Maui).

Despite the snow, the third go-around of the Big Five Classic was quite a success. The rotation of teams, opponents and start times seems equitable. Villanova had the night game two years ago against Temple in the inaugural event, the middle game against La Salle last year, and the night game again tonight versus the Explorers. Due to the substantial snowfall which hit Philadelphia and its environs, there was concern about a possible postponement, but the games went off as scheduled. I think that it would have required a truly massive snowstorm, such as the one that walloped us last year, to postpone this event. First, you have six different teams' schedules to juggle. It would be extremely unlikely that you'd be able to accommodate everyone on another date. Second, everyone is local and thus already in town. Often, postponements occur because one team can't get to the game, but that wouldn't be a problem in this case.

The crowds were larger than I had expected, in light of the weather. The Temple/Drexel crowd was sparse, but ticketholders showed up en masse by the second half of the doubleheader, SJU vs. Penn; the building was packed. I would estimate that in terms of bodies in the seats (the "official" attendance was announced at 6,325) that for 'Nova/La Salle about 65-70% of the place was filled, with the bulk of the empty seats in the La Salle half of the building.

Although certainly not one of the legendary throngs that used to genuinely rock the Palestra, it was certainly a large enough crowd to make the majestic old palace feel lively and ebullient. All in all, it was quite an enjoyable show of college hoops, in the greatest building that the sport has ever built (or ever will build!)

Villanova will try to sustain its impressive run through the City Series, when it returns to the Palestra on Tuesday. The Wildcats, having vanquished Temple and La Salle already, will try to do the same to the Penn Quakers that night.

Go Wildcats!