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.

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