Saturday, February 28, 2004

In Overtime, VU Falls to #8 UConn, 75-74, at the Wachovia Center

Add the name Rashad Anderson to the Villanova "enemies list". The Connecticut freshman joins the rapidly expanding list of opponents who have dashed the hopes of Villanova fans: a list which includes BC's Andrew Bryant, Miami's Johnny Hemsley, and Old Dominion's Petey Sessoms. This afternoon, Anderson drained an improbable three-point basket - his only field goal of the game - from the right corner to force overtime, in a game the hated, #8 Huskies went on to win, 75-74.

For 45 minutes on its quasi-home floor at the cavernous Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Villanova gave Connecticut all it could handle. Even in overtime, Randy Foye had a shot to win the game for 'Nova, driving to the hoop as the buzzer went off, but had the potential game-winner swatted away by national Player of the Year candidate Emeka Okafor. Replays indicated that there was some contact on the final play, but it's possible that the buzzer may have gone off prior to the foul, even if it had been called. (And, of course, there's no guarantee that Foye would have made either or both of the free throws.) But no foul was whistled, consigning the Wildcats to yet another February defeat, their fifth in six games. The 'Cats were trying to pull off a reprise of last season's clash there, where Villanova emerged with a 79-70 victory over the hated Huskies, ranked #23 at the time.

Connecticut is seeking a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and remained in the
hunt, improving its record to 23-5 overall, 11-3 BE, and winning their fourth
straight. Villanova fell to 6-8 Big East, 14-13 overall, losing its third
straight. The NIT requires schools to be at least .500 by the end of the regular
season to qualify, so Villanova will need to beat Miami on Senior Night on
Tuesday at the Pavilion, or else take their chances on stopping #4 Pitt on the
road (an unlikely scenario), or some big wins in the Big East tournament, to
continue the school's NIT streak, which began in 2000. A NIT bid would also
mark their sixth straight postseason appearance, beginning with the 1999 NCAA
squad.) But in light of the strong performance put up today, it seems reasonable
that the Miami game should be a win, and thus the NIT bid is all but certain.

The Huskies were led by Ben Gordon, who scored 21 points and always seemed to
be there to take a big shot for UConn when it needed it, regardless of the
distance or Villanova's momentum; he also had five assists to lead the team, as
well as logging 43 of the 45 minutes. Okafor had 17 points, six rebounds and
two blocks, with both coming when it mattered. Freshman Josh Boone scored 11
points, including what turned out to be the winning basket, laying in a Gordon
miss on the Huskies' final possession in OT after nobody boxed him out.
Senior Taliek Brown, the BE leader in assists, had 10 points and four assists and
also logged 43 minutes. Finally, Charlie Villanueva, a Villanova recruiting
target, came off the bench to key Connecticut's first-half offense at a
critical point, helping to keep the game close; he finished with eight points and
four blocks, in just 17 minutes

For 'Nova, the effort was spearheaded by Curtis Sumpter and Allan Ray. Each
went 8-18 from the floor, as Sumpter finished with 22 points and Ray with 20,
and both played over 40 minutes. Foye was the only other Wildcat to reach
double figures, as he recorded a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, a
highly impressive total for a guard. Trying to keep up with Okafor (a
daunting task) Jason Fraser was hampered by foul trouble and ultimately played just
26 minutes, fouling out halfway through overtime; Villanova's inability to stop
Okafor inside may have made the difference (although, obviously, any one
factor can be isolated in a one-point game). Fraser finished with solid numbers
in light of how few minutes he played (six points, four rebounds and two
blocks), but Villanova really needed to keep him on the floor longer than it did.

Villanova won the game, tactically. That may seem counterintuitive, since
they didn't dominate the stat sheet. Connecticut actually shot for a slightly
higher field goal percentage overall, and a significantly higher average from
beyond the arc, as well as committing fewer turnovers and dealing more assists.
However, it was one of those games where the numbers don't really tell the
whole story. Watching this game, you could see that Villanova played better
overall, than Connecticut. It was arguably the finest game the Wildcats have
played all season, in spite of the fact that it was a loss. The only other
candidates would have been the Midnight Madness victory over Temple and the
competitive game against then-#3 St. Joseph's at the Pavilion. They played better
five-man basketball (something they don't usually do), hustled for loose balls,
and seemed to get to every spot a split-second quicker than the Huskies. Had
I not known anything about the teams, I would have been stunned to learn that
the team in the white throwback jerseys (not seen since the Feb. 2 loss to
St. Joseph's at the Pavilion) was the team playing for pride and a NIT berth -
while the team in the navy blue was in the hunt for a Final Four and a national

Also, the numbers have to be crunched, with an eye on the specific teams
involved. Villanova had only 12 turnovers, a very low number for this team.
Connecticut was leading the conference in rebounding margin, averaging about ten
boards a game MORE than its opponents - but Villanova OUTREBOUNDED them today,

Villanova also seemed poised at various points throughout the game, to
actually pull away and break it open, whereas Connecticut never gave any such signs.
The Huskies generally seemed to be treading water, battling to stay in the
game; they would occasionally burst forward in their traditional transition
game, but only sporadically. They were just trying to hang on, for most of the
contest; it was far from what you'd expect from a nationally ranked team.
Frankly, I expected the Wildcats to be blown out in this game, given that
Connecticut is the most talented team Villanova has faced this season. I was
pleasantly surprised that the Wildcats almost managed to pull a major upset.

Except for the very beginning, Villanova looked great during all 45 minutes.
There were none of the painful droughts which have plagued the Wildcats this
season. They fell behind 5-0 and 15-9, but other wise went toe-to-toe with
the powerful Huskies for the entire 45 minutes. VU took its first lead, 22-21,
with a pair of Sumpter free throws, and held that lead for virtually the rest
of the half. After Okafor retook it with free throws, 'Nova held it till the
32 second mark, when Taliek Brown laid in a basket to put UConn up 36-35, with
32 seconds to play. Chris Charles drew a foul with 0.4 of a second
remaining, and made one of two free throws to give 'Nova a tie at halftime, something
they were certainly eager to take against the #8 team in America.

A remarkable symmetry of halftime numbers:

Both teams shot exactly 13-30 from the floor in the first half (43%).
And 3-7 from three-point range. And a virtually identical 7-8 (VU) and 7-9
(UConn) from the line.

The numbers diverged somewhat when it came to individuals, naturally; Ray led
'Nova with 11 points, while Sumpter had eight and Foye six; Gordon had a
dozen for the Huskies, while Villanueva had eight off the bench.

After a brief flurry by UConn, in which the Huskies boosted their lead to
40-36, Villanova made its strongest charge of the game. Villanova won the next
ten minutes or so by a 21-9 margin, enough to give the Wildcats a substantial
57-49 lead by the under-eight minute TV timeout, the largest lead they would
ever enjoy. At the 15:45 mark, a Sumpter dunk got the crowd excited, and forced
a timeout from Calhoun. About a minute later, Villanueva missed a dunk,
drawing jeers from the crowd, and Sumpter scored at the other end, putting 'Nova
up 47-43; UConn had made only 3 of its 10 second-half shots at that point.
Around the midway point of the second half, back-to-back dunks from Foye and Will
Sheridan put 'Nova up 53-47 and forced another timeout. UConn's shooting had
deteriorated even further, as the Huskies were only 5-17 from the floor since
play had resumed.

After drifting back to a 57-49 disadvantage, Connecticut came back with a 7-2
run of its own, closing the gap to 59-56 with about three minutes left. Then
'Nova kept trying to administer the coup de grace- and Connecticut wouldn't
stay down. Derrick Snowden drained an NBA-length three, but Okafor and Gordon
both replied, Okafor underneath and Gordon with a three with 1:50 to go.
'Nova was clinging to a 62-61 lead.

Eventually, Villanova scored a basket which against most opponents, playing
at home, would have become the memorable play of the game. Holding onto a
64-63 lead with 56 seconds to play, 'Nova held the ball for 35 seconds, and Ray
floated the ball into the basket as the buzzer went off - a psychologically
devastating blow, as the crowd went nuts and 'Nova now held a three-point
advantage with 20 seconds left. And 'Nova had more than just momentum. It had fouls
to give - three to be exact. Logically, Villanova didn't even have to permit
UConn to take a shot. With three fouls to give in 20 seconds, realistically,
Villanova could just keep fouling whenever the Huskies came anywhere near the
basket, and run out the clock.

For some reason - perhaps the rarity of the situation (how often do you play
the entire second half and commit only three fouls?), coach Jay Wright opted
NOT to use this strategy to its conclusion. Only two of the three potential
fouls were committed, and as a result, Anderson had the opportunity to make his
triple with 7 seconds remaining, tying it at 66. Ironically, Foye had a
chance to score over Okafor at the end of regulation as well, but his shot was
swatted away (and the first time, there wasn't any contact). A Villanova putback
attempt went awry, and 'Nova was confronted with its first overtime contest
since Maui, back in November, when the 'Cats topped Santa Clara in overtime.

You know it's a tightly contested overtime, when neither team leads by more
than two, at any stage. The teams kept dueling but neither could build any
kind of a lead, and it seems that whoever would have the ball last would win.
Connecticut appeared to gain the upper hand when Fraser fouled out with 2:46 to
play in overtime, but Okafor also had four fouls and was in danger. (Okafor
also played the entire game while injured to some degree.) After Okafor made
the front end of a one-and-one, with 51.2 seconds to play, giving UConn a 73-72
lead, Sumpter gave 'Nova its final lead at 19.4 seconds to play, scoring to
restore the 'Cats' one-point advantage at 74-73. The Huskies called their last
timeout to discuss the matter.

Gordon took what was intended to be UConn's last gasp, missing a shot - but
Boone, left alone underneath, seized the opportunity to be a hero, putting back
the miss for the winning points with just 5.5 seconds to go. After 'Nova
called its last timeout, Foye made his second effort to overcome Okafor, but

It was a particularly galling loss, because of Villanova's poor record in
close games this season. In games decided by five points or less (in other
words, probably decided in the final two minutes) Villanova is now 2-7, and that
more than any other factor explains why the Wildcats are not on the NCAA bubble,
at the end of February.

The one silver lining, ironically, of Villanova's diminished status this
season is that the razor-thin, adverse outcome today, was less painful that it
would have been, If the outcome had mattered for NCAA purposes. However, the
losses at Seton Hall and Syracuse had already fatally torpedoed any NCAA hopes,
anyhow, so even if the Wildcats had managed to pull off the upset today, it
wouldn't have changed their ultimate fate. Even with a win this afternoon,
Villanova would still have needed to beat Miami AND win at Pitt next week, where
the Panthers will likely have a 41-game home winning streak, AND put together a
strong Big East tournament run, going all the way to the final, and you have
to be realistic.

This marks the first season, since the Big East divisional play started in
2000-01, that the 'Cats and Huskies didn't clash twice a year. With the
abolition of divisional play this year, however, the Huskies weren't one of the three
teams Villanova drew to play twice. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun
undoubtedly likes the Center, as he has brought Connecticut in there six times and won
on four of them. Although Villanova still holds a 29-23 lead in the all-time
series, the vast majority of Villanova victories came before Calhoun's strong
teams developed. Since 1990, Connecticut has won 19 of 27 meetings between the
schools. Over the last six years, the dominance has only increased, with the
Huskies winning 9 of the last 12 and five of the last six games.

Now that another slate of Wachovia Center games has come and gone, it's worth
examining the historical record at the state-of-the-art, but unfortunately
very spacious and distant, facility. This season, Villanova wisely opted to
play just three games there. It is claimed that the Big East mandates that at
least three Wildcat games be slated there, per season. However, it seems more
plausible that it's a vestige of the old days, when Villanova was able to
attract huge crowds to the building. Nonetheless, Villanova's position is that it
would voluntarily play at least three games there, regardless of the
conference requirement, so the point is moot. Losing to Memphis, Notre Dame, and
Connecticut, Villanova failed to win a single game there this season. In eight
years of using that building, that is only the second time that's happened. It's
also the first time, since the rebuilding year of 1997-98, when the 'Cats
lost all four games there, en route to a 12-17 record (the team's only losing
record in the last 11 years). All-time, the Wildcats are now 10-15 there.
Obviously, in an overtime game which was ultimately decided by one point, could the
additional home-court advantage provided by the Pavilion have made a
difference? Absolutely.

What about attendance? Officially, prior to this season, the Wildcats had
averaged 14,876 per game, a laughable figure which isn't remotely close to
accurate. A good rule of thumb is to subtract about three thousand from the
official figure, to determine how many real, live human beings actually made the
trek down to South Philly. Today's game drew a large crowd, officially deemed at
over 16,000, which even adjusted downward, still means a substantial increase
over the Pavilion capacity of 6,500. But Connecticut, due to its perennial
powerhouse status and national fan base, still draws more fans than most of the
opponents Villanova brings to the building. There is no reason to believe
that hordes of casual fans will show up to see Memphis or Penn State, teams
which Villanova has played there in the past.

Seniors Derrick Snowden, Andreas Bloch, and Tom Grace bid farewell to the
Pavilion forever on Tuesday night, when the freefalling Miami Hurricanes make
their final visit to the Main Line, prior to exiting for the Atlantic Coast

Also, best wishes for a speedy recovery, to longtime VU radio broadcaster
Whitey Rigsby, who didn't broadcast the game due to shoulder surgery earlier this

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