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!

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