Thursday, January 29, 2004

Scarlet Knights Slay Wildcats, 71-68, at Pavilion

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

The loss represents a major setback for the Wildcats, as they seek to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Villanova fell to 3-3 Big East, 11-7 overall, in the first game of a three-game homestand at the Pavilion. RU improved its record to 3-4 Big East, 11-6 overall, in the only meeting between the two schools this season. RU is once again rebuilding, this time under coach Gary Waters, in his third season. But the relatively strong start - RU hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 1991 - has generated some positive buzz around the
Knights' program for the first time in many years. In Waters' two-plus seasons, Rutgers has six wins over ranked teams, an impressive accomplishment. This season, they nearly toppled then-#1 Connecticut at the RAC; the Huskies escaped with a 75-74 victory on Jan. 6.

What is particularly frustrating about the loss is that Villanova truly annihilated RU last year, at its intimidating home floor, the RAC. The 110-89 victory represented the 'Cats' best game of the season last year, and it gave some hope for an easy victory once again this year.

Also, RU has a truly dismal history against Villanova. Prior to tonight, Villanova led the overall series 19-5, had won three straight over RU, and eight out of ten from RU, since they joined the BE in 1995-96. Most importantly, RU had come into the Pavilion five times and emerged with five losses. The Knights hadn't won a game on VU's campus since winning at Jake Nevin Fieldhouse in overtime on Feb. 22, 1978 (although that's a bit misleading since the series lay dormant for 16 years, while the Knights were in the Atlantic 10).

Also, it was a game against an opponent that Villanova simply HAS to beat to get to the NCAA tournament this year. The schedule is very steep down the stretch, and if the 'Cats can't scrape up a victory against RU on its true home floor, with the students there...

Villanova was victimized by poor shooting overall, especially from Randy Foye, who regressed after a strong performance in Sunday's victory at Miami. The sophomore guard had a hellish game, scoring 10 points but going just 3-16 from the floor and missing all eight of his three-point attempts (including what would have been an overtime-forcing triple at the buzzer). Point guards Mike Nardi and Derrick Snowden also combined to shoot 0-6 from the floor. As a team, the 'Cats shot only 38% from the floor and an anemic 15% (3-20) from three-point range. In contrast, Rutgers enjoyed a 43% success rate from the floor
and an impressive 48% from beyond the arc (10-21). Ironically, one thing Villanova DID do extremely well was shoot free throws; the 'Cats' astounding 95% accuracy (19-21) was one big reason the game was so close, despite the poor shooting performance. Allan Ray also had a solid night, contributing 16 points on 6-10 shooting. Jason Fraser continued his improved play with 10 points, seven rebounds, and four blocks; Fraser is playing with greater confidence now and is taking some defensive pressure off the guards.

For Rutgers, Ricky Shields led the way with 19 points and seven rebounds; Juel Wiggin had a rare double-double by attaining 10 points with 10 assists. Freshman Quincy Douby, the Big East co-rookie of the week, came up big with 15 points, including three of four free throws in the last few seconds to thwart Villanova's comeback. And Herve Laminzana had 11 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds.

It didn't help that once again, Villanova couldn't get much out of its increasingly disused bench, which combined for only five points, although it did pull in a dozen rebounds, including five from Andreas Bloch (in just nine minutes), who is primarily a shooting specialist. (Rutgers got 20 points out of its bench, including 15 from Douby.)

RU played with a remarkable amount of confidence; they had a 21-11 lead halfway through the first half, on the road. Coach Jay Wright made some adjustments, however, and the 'Cats crept back into it, trailing by just two at halftime, 34-32. Sumpter led the 'Cats at halftime with a dozen points, and if they could just get Foye on track (he had just four points at the break...)

Fraser gave 'Nova its first lead since 2-0 when he dunked shortly after play resumed, making the score 39-37. Both teams traded baskets for a while, before what would turn out to be the knockout blow. It came surprisingly early, when Shields and Douby canned back-to-back threes, around the midpoint of the second half. They gave RU a 51-45 lead, and Wright called for timeout to stop the bleeding. Although 'Nova eventually reclaimed the lead for a brief time, the Wildcats seemed rattled, and those triples were the turning point.

RU held a commanding 64-55 lead with about 3:24 to play, but the 'Cats fought their way back into it, with the Pavilion crowd behind them. However, 'Nova looked all but dead, when RU still held a 68-63 lead with 26.6 seconds to play, but the Knights turned over the inbounds pass to Sumpter, who scored and was fouled. His free throw cut it to 68-66 with 19 seconds left. 'Nova had a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, Douby made three of four free throws (not easy for a freshman on the road, even one who is an 85% foul shooter), in the last 19 seconds. Douby made a pair, Sumpter added another basket, and Douby then made one of two; thus, ultimately, Villanova had the ball and a chance to tie it at 71 with a three, with 5.7 seconds to go. Foye's shot at the buzzer just didn't go in.

The game was also punctuated by some verbiage between coach Jay Wright and Rutgers' Laminzana, but it appeared that whatever was said, it was patched up afterwards.

Villanova will return to action, in what is now an unquestionably must-win game, at the Pavilion against West Virginia on Saturday afternoon.

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