Saturday, January 10, 2004

Villanova Loses 1st Big East game EVER to Irish, 82-78

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

In the now-eight seasons that Villanova has played at the Wachovia Center in
Philadelphia, it has lost to a remarkably impressive array of opponents: Duke,
Syracuse, Georgetown, Kentucky, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, St. John's, and
Pittsburgh. But not Notre Dame, which had entered the gigantic building three
times without a victory, the only team to ever lose three games to 'Nova there.
Even more astounding is that in eight tries, ND had NEVER defeated Villanova
since joining the Big East in 1995-96 - until today. After an appalling
down-the-stretch collapse surrendered a five-point lead with 2:50 to play, 'Nova
fell to the Fighting Irish, 82-78, in its BE opener. It was 'Nova's second
loss in five days on that floor, after being pounded by Memphis on Tuesday night
in nonconference play.

It was Notre Dame's first Philadelphia victory over Villanova in 23 years;
not since the Fighting Irish of Digger Phelps pounded 'Nova 94-65 at the
Palestra on January 6, 1981 (Jimmy Carter was still president) had Notre Dame flown
into Philly and flown out with a win over 'Nova. However, it should be noted
that the Irish haven't come in here every year, not even since joining the BE.
This was ND's first trip to Philadelphia in four years, due to the BE's
scheduling quirks; the last game here was a February 8, 2000 Villanova victory.
And the series also lay dormant from 1984 to 1996. Also, Villanova's lead in
the all-time series is now only 13-11, thanks to the Irish domination of it in
the 1970s under Phelps.

Nonetheless, over the last two decades, Villanova has dominated the series
when it HAS taken place, regardless of the site. Prior to today, the Wildcats
had won ten out of their last eleven games against Notre Dame, stretching back
to 1982. That includes a 4-1 record AT Notre Dame, an impressive
accomplishment: the Wildcats last lost at ND in 1984, and have won on their last four
trips to South Bend.

Villanova has yet to win in 2004, falling to 0-1 Big East, 8-5 overall, and
losing its third straight contest. Notre Dame improved to 2-0 Big East, 8-3
overall. For this season, the Big East has abolished its division format after,
among other things, the NCAA was insufficiently impressed with last year's
East Division champion to bother issuing it a NCAA bid. As a result, each team
will play every other one, once, with three opponents appearing twice on the
schedule. Thus, unlike last year, when Villanova losses to West Division teams
(such as Notre Dame) did not mean as much, all losses are equally
disadvantageous this year from the perspective of the Big East standings.

This loss is particularly injurious to the 'Cats, because most observers had
this game penciled in as a victory, given the lopsided history of the rivalry
and the need to win almost all home games (even Wachovia Center ones) against
non-powerhouse BE opponents. To get back on track, Villanova will now need to
steal an additional game on the road in conference play.

The sophomore backcourt tandem of Allen Ray and Randy Foye led the Wildcats
with 18 points each, while Mike Nardi (15 points) and Curtis Sumpter (14
points) also reached double figures. Two players just missed double-doubles:
Sumpter had nine boards, while Jason Fraser had a fantastic game, with an amazing 17
rebounds to go with his nine points and three blocks. Coach Jay Wright, for
reasons not entirely clear, opted to use a short bench. Only seven Wildcats
participated: Will Sheridan and Derrick Snowden were the only substitutes.
Marcus Austin, Chris Charles, and Andreas Bloch never got off the bench. And the
starters logged virtually the entire game: Sheridan and Snowden played only
18 minutes and scored only four points. For Notre Dame, five players reached
double figures, with Chris Thomas turning in a tremendous performance, racking
up 26 points (including 10-12 from the line) before fouling out in the last
few seconds. Chris Quinn (13 points) , Colin Falls (12 points), Torin Francis
(11 points) and Torrian Jones (10 points), also made significant contributions.
Jones hails from Morrisville, Pa., in Bucks County, and had some fans

Despite the adverse outcome, I have to acknowledge that the game was actually
quite entertaining. Both teams hustled throughout, and the momentum swings
were more jagged than usual. Neither team particularly excelled in any one
statistical area, but that, after all, is what makes basketball (or any game!)
exciting. It's a lot more fun to watch when the teams seem evenly matched and
neither side seems to clearly have the upper hand. The box score reflects
among the most similar results you'll ever find:

field goal percentage: VU 26-58 (45%) ND 28-61 (46%)
three-point percentage: VU 9-21 (43%) ND 9-23 (39%)

Meanwhile, both teams' free-throw percentages were identical - 17-26 (65%),
as well as registering 13 assists apiece, and Villanova had only one less
rebound (39-38). While 'Nova coughed the ball up more often (14-10), as you can
see, across the board the numbers basically came out to a draw. So it
shouldn't be surprising that ND won by only four points.

When Villanova seemed to have the game under control, Notre Dame suddenly
revived and snatched it from them, making a strong comeback and going back to
South Bend with a key (and probably unexpected) road victory. It came at a good
time, too, after Villanova sleepwalked through the second half against Memphis
on Monday night. It worked out well, too, that it was a better game, as a
much larger number of them officially came to the game (over 14,000) than
officially came to see Memphis (less than 10,000).

Things looked good for Villanova early on. The 'Cats took a quick 9-4 lead,
and ND's star, Torin Francis, picked up two quick fouls in less than four
minutes, relegating him to the bench for the entire first half. But Notre Dame
out-hustled the 'Cats up and down the floor for the rest of the half -- perhaps
each player felt that he needed to step it up a notch with Francis on the
bench. First, they fought back and tied it at 14. Foye nailed a three to put
'Nova up 17-14, but ND then went on a 15-0 rampage, which didn't end until Wright
called a timeout with 8:17 to play and the 'Cats suddenly facing a 29-17
deficit. It permitted ND coach Mike Brey the luxury of leaving the foul-saddled
Francis on the bench for the rest of the half

But the momentum soon swung back in the 'Cats' favor. Villanova struck back
with a 16-6 run of its own, culminating dramatically when Nardi took an
off-balance, horrible top-of-the-key three-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer with
1:45 to play. When it went in, the crowd went wild and 'Nova trailed by just
one, 35-34. While ND increased its lead to 38-34 by intermission, the 'Nova
faithful had to feel good that the 'Cats had clawed their way back into the game.

For most of the second half, Villanova ran the show - which is why the
outcome is so difficult to take. The Wildcats - who had given up a dozen
second-chance points in the first half - simply began out-hustling the Irish. Villanova
retook the lead early in the second half, after a couple of dunks and some
Ray free throws, and then began building a lead. ND briefly took the lead at
46-45, but 'Nova went on a 10-2 run, thanks to the heroics of Sumpter and a dunk
from Foye with 11:34 to play, pleasing the crowd. 'Nova was up 55-48 and yet
another Wachovia Center defeat seemed imminent for Notre Dame. 'Nova was
able to keep them at bay for a while, and the lead was pushed back to five when
Fraser tipped in a Sumpter miss with 3:07 to go. It made it 74-69 Villanova -
but unfortunately, it was 'Nova's last field goal in the contest. Notre Dame
won the last three minutes, 13-4 - a very difficult thing to do on the road.

It took Notre Dame less than 90 seconds to erase the deficit completely, and
suddenly they were back in the lead after two Quinn free throws made it 76-74
with 1:52 to play. The psychologically devastating play came on Notre Dame's
next possession, after Villanova had failed to score. Playing solid defense
and hoping for a stop, trailing by just two, 'Nova hounded the Irish around for
nearly the entire shot clock. But the Irish guards expertly maneuvered the
ball around and fed it to Francis for a virtually uncontested dunk with 1:08 to
play, just before the clock would have expired. It deflated the 'Cats.

It was surprising that Wright, despite the presence of the three-point
shooter Andreas Bloch on the bench, never sought his help down the stretch.
Granted, Bloch is suspect defensively, but with all the timeouts being called and
fouls committed, Wright could have shuttled him in and out, the way he has done
in the past. But Bloch stayed seated.

Not that ND didn't try hard to help 'Nova come back, committing two amazingly
foolish fouls on Allan Ray on the perimeter, giving him five free throws in
the last 18.9 seconds of a tight game. Trailing 81-75, Ray was fouled
attempting a three-pointer, a taboo for any defensive player, but Ray could convert
only two of three from the line, keeping it a two-possession game at 81-77. ND
had trouble inbounding the ball and 'Nova managed to surround Tom Timmermans,
who called ND's last timeout with 12 seconds to play. After ND successfully
inbounded the ball and converted one of two free throws, 'Nova was faced with a
seemingly insurmountable deficit: 82-77 with just a few seconds left and one

This turned out not to matter, but COULD have been quite interesting. After
missing the first three-point attempt, 'Nova corralled the rebound and got it
to Ray, who heaved it with one second to play - but was fouled. (!) There is
no reason to even contest that shot, with a five point lead.

Theoretically, 'Nova had a way to pull out a miracle at that point:

If Ray could make all three, it would be down to 82-80 and 'Nova could call
its last timeout to set up a press with one second left. ND was out of
timeouts, and if Villanova could force a five second call, they could get the ball
back under the basket and run a play for a layup. (Granted, it's farfetched,
but stranger things have happened.) Unfortunately, Ray missed the first free
throw, rendering the point moot. (For some reason, Wright THEN used the last

(The other option might have been to have Ray make the first two, getting it
down to 82-79, and then intentionally missing the third one, hoping to get the
rebound. However, I think the first option outlined is more feasible because
it doesn't involve the clock moving. Even if Ray could slam the rim hard
enough to get the ball out to the perimeter, it doesn't seem practical that the
rebound could be gotten and the shooter release the ball in a single second.

The major bright spot, naturally, for the 'Cats

Unusual moments: with 4:50 to play, someone (I believe Sumpter) drove in for
a layup, but laid the ball up from behind the glass, so that the ball bounced
up in the air, rolled around a bit and eventually came to a rest not on the
backboard itself, but on the crazy patchwork of wires and lines which supports
the backboard. You could probably TRY to do that a thousand times and not come
close to putting the ball in that precise spot. The game was delayed
momentarily while the officials fired a couple of shots at the ball, trying to
dislodge it before finally succeeding.

Shortly after that, Nardi was banged up in a collision with a ND player, and
had to leave the game while his bleeding was attended to by the staff, and he
returned with a bandaged chin, while wearing a generic #15 jersey (shades of
Malik Allen?) to replace the blood-stained one. (Probably due to the
wooziness, the ordinarily solid free-throw shooter missed a couple after his return.)

The Wildcats will have some time to recover from the three straight losses,
as they don't resume Big East play until Wednesday, January 14 at Boston
College - most likely their final trip to BC's Conte Forum for many years. Boston
College is one of the three schools which opted to bail out of the Big East for
the ACC over the offseason. But BC is held in greater disregard around the
league than fellow departers Miami and Virginia Tech, because:

After the initial ACC flirtation (along with Miami and Syracuse) everyone
thought they were staying, as the ACC opted to extend invitations to only Miami
and Virginia Tech. Everyone in the BE thought that BC and Syracuse were thus
sticking around, until the surprise announcement in October came from BC that
they were leaving after all. And it's possible that the changes may be
implemented as early as next season - but even if they aren't, Villanova would likely
only play BC once next season, and at home.

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