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.

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