Thursday, January 15, 2004

Wildcats Bid Farewell to Conte Forum With W, 92-89

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

In what is probably their final visit to Conte Forum for many years, Villanova held on by its collective fingernails for an uncomfortably narrow 92-89 victory over traditional on-court - but recent off-court - nemesis Boston College, as BC heads to the ACC for the 2005-06 season and there will likely be only one game next year, at the Pavilion. Thanks in large part to 41 clock-slowing free throw attempts, BC threw quite a scare at the 'Cats down the stretch, but 'Nova was able to preserve its victory. It was the 'Cats' first victory at BC since 1997, as they had dropped four in a row at Conte Forum.

Memories of past Conte Forum second-half meltdowns were undoubtedly dancing in the minds of the Villanova faithful, as the 'Cats have had a painful recent history of coughing up leads down the stretch in that building. But instead of yet another heartbreaking loss in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, the Wildcats will return to the Pavilion clutching a - frankly - necessary victory. Villanova evened its record in Big East play at 1-1 and improved to 9-5 overall; it was also the Wildcats' first victory in 2004, after a loss at Kansas and a pair of defeats at the Wachovia Center last week. Boston College fell to 1-2 in Big East play, 11-4 overall.

Mike Nardi scored 24 points, while Allan Ray added 23, to lead the way for
'Nova. Andreas Bloch also chipped in with 12 points, a welcome surprise. Craig
Smith led BC with 21 points, followed by significant contributions from Jared
Dudley (19 points) and Steve Hailey (18 points). Villanova benefited from
astonishing three-point accuracy, nailing 70% of its three-point attempts, but
kept BC in the game with 22 costly turnovers and all of those free chances at
the line (Villanova shot only 14 attempts, barely one-third BC's total).

It was the 74th meeting overall between the schools, and Villanova now has
added to its commanding 51-23 lead in the overall series, as well as 30-15 in
Big East play. However, BC has dominated the series in recent years. It was
only Villanova's second victory in its last nine games versus the Eagles, and BC
hadn't lost at home to the 'Cats since December 30, 1997, when a rebuilding
Villanova squad beat BC, 83-76. This year also marks the first season BC won't
be coming to the Main Line since the 1996-97 season, the Tim Thomas year.
Under the old two-division format, BC and 'Nova would play annual
home-and-homes, making BC mentor Al Skinner a familiar face on the Pavilion sidelines. But
under the new single-division format, those days are in the past.

Villanova cruised in the first half, with remarkably balanced scoring (I
don't think any Wildcat had more than six points) and building a 41-30 advantage.
Especially welcome was 10 bench points from Andreas Bloch and Chris Charles,
two players whom coach Jay Wright opted to not even USE in Saturday's
disappointing loss to Notre Dame. 'Nova had a plus-ten edge on the boards, and also
held the Eagles to a poor 9-28 (32%) shooting performance from the floor, prior
to intermission.

BC started to make its comeback, due to a massive number of fouls committed
by Villanova. Over a three minute span in the second half (from 15:04 to
12:41), Randy Foye picked up his third and fourth fouls and Curtis Sumpter picked
up his fourth. Over the same span, BC raced back from a 53-43 deficit to pull
within 55-52. Fortunately, Allan Ray replied with no fewer than FOUR
devastating triples, and thus 'Nova was sitting comfortably on a seemingly
insurmountable 80-63 lead with 5:45 to play. BC made a stunning late-game rally,
however; Uka Agbai demonstrated a lot of "heart," so to speak, by scoring with just
under two minutes to play, cutting it to 84-79. (Some of you may remember that
Agbai conspicuously taunted Coach Wright and the Villanova bench in overtime
at the Pavilion, two years ago, gesticulating about they had "no heart.")

'Nova hung on, though, and even overcame a foolish technical foul on Jason
Fraser, who was assessed with 18.1 seconds to play and 'Nova's lead at 90-83.
It made the final seconds uncomfortably close, as BC closed to within 90-87
quickly, but the 'Cats hung on for the 92-89 triumph. (And as any NFL coach can
quickly confirm, nobody remembers those kinds of mistakes unless they cost you
the game.)

The series, between two private, Catholic East Coast schools with comparable
enrollments and resources, who regularly contend for the same students, will
unfortunately come to a conclusion after next season, in all probability. The
reason is the byzantine politics which convulsed the NCAA landscape over the
offseason and which culminated in substantial changes to at least seven
conferences. Over the offseason, BC, Syracuse and Miami openly flirted with shifting
to the ACC, and most contingency plans on both sides reflected such a move,
with the membership lining up accordingly.

The key issue was the fact that of the nine current ACC members, seven votes
were required to authorize invitations to new institutions. With Duke and
North Carolina staunch "no" votes on expansion, Virginia ended up being the swing
vote - and political forces in Virginia demanded that Virginia trade its
crucial vote to get fellow Old Dominion institution Virginia Tech into the ACC.

As a result, the initial ACC vote, in the spring, offered invitations to only
Miami and Virginia Tech - not BC and Syracuse. The BE, scrambling to save
its very existence, finally got all of its members on the same page on its
collective future, in the face of the defections, and BC was a big part of that, as
one of the schools which had very publicly announced its desire to leave.

So it came as quite a shock when in mid-October, it was announced that the
Eagles (led by former Villanova AD Gene DeFilippo) would be packing their bags
after all for the ACC, a genuinely bizarre decision, even by the addled
standards of big-time college athletics. Never mind the fact that BC had already
reaffirmed its BE loyalties to its fellow conference members, a conference of
which BC is a charter member.

Looking at it from a purely Machiavellian point of view, it becomes even
harder to justify. It was one thing for Miami and Virginia Tech to shift to a
conference whose center of gravity lies in North Carolina rather than Manhattan;
it was quite another for Boston College to do that. Virginia Tech
unquestionably, and Miami arguably, have more in common with the ACC schools
(geographically, demographically, athletically, and financially) than with their
comparatively recent Big East brethren. Essentially, BC decided to walk away from a
conference composed largely on medium-sized, East Coast-Midwest Catholic schools
(i.e., schools very similar to itself) in order to compete in a conference
composed almost exclusively on large Southern public schools. BC will have no
conference ally closer than Maryland, leading to horrendous travel expenses for
ALL of its teams, not just its revenue-producing football and basketball
squads. It also means that they have to create rivalries from scratch. It's bad
enough that conference free agency has led to these 16-team monstrosities and
artificial rivalries for PART of every team's schedule. BC will now have to
explain to its largely Northeastern fan base, alumni and student body, that
instead of the traditional battles against Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova, and
- especially - Connecticut, they now get the fun of the traditional clash
against the likes of NC State and Clemson on a regular basis.

It also will have to serve out a year to two years of lame-duck status in the
Big East, as well as pariah status afterwards. It appears as of this writing
that Miami and Virginia Tech may be able to escape the Big East at the end of
this season, thus meaning that BC will have to serve a year alone as a
lame-duck team, which it won't be happy about. And the bitterness over the move
unquestionably means the termination of rivalries with all of the Big East
schools, including Villanova. The 75th and probably final game in the series will
come next year (except for the off chance that 'Nova gets to play BC twice next
year). So enjoy these last couple of games with BC, while they last...

Villanova will return to action on Sunday at 2 PM, in a must-win game against
moribund, Mike Jarvis-less St. John's at the Pavilion. By a remarkably
fortunate coincidence, the NFL opted to schedule the Eagles' NFC title game clash
at the relatively late 6 PM hour, thus making sure that the 'Cats will have a
full house for its 2 PM clash with the Johnnies (the game will be long since
over by kickoff.)

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