Saturday, February 21, 2004

Seton Hall Pirates Hang on to Narrowly Sink Wildcats, 70-68

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Four Wildcats reached double figures, led by Allan Ray's 18. Ray had a fantastic first half but stalled badly in the second, as he had 14 by the break. Foye's game was the mirror opposite, as Foye - mired in foul trouble - not only failed to score before halftime, but had NO field goals, before the 6:16 mark of the SECOND half - but ended up exploding for six field goals in the last 6:16, and nearly singlehandedly stole the game for the 'Cats. Curtis Sumpter also had 15 points, while Jason Fraser posted a double-double with 12 points (on perfect 5-5 shooting) and 11 boards.

The victorious Pirates relied almost exclusively on their starters, as the original crew played all but 25 minutes and scored all but five points. Andre Barrett led the way with 16 points, while Kelly Whitney had 15, John Allen and Marcus Toney-El a dozen each, and Andre Sweet 10.

The Pirate crew continued to sail ahead to the NCAA tournament, with a dazzling RPI of 19 entering the game and a now solid record of 7-5 Big East, 17-7 overall. Villanova fell to 6-6 Big East, 14-11 overall, and has dropped three of its last four contests. Unfortunately, the loss probably means the end of Villanova's meaningful NCAA hopes this season (at least for an at-large bid). The Wildcats will need AT LEAST nine Big East wins to merit serious consideration. Their RPI ranking stood at 48 entering today and will drop with the loss (only slightly, though, because of Seton Hall's high ranking). With just four games remaining, three are against ranked teams and none of them are at the Pavilion (Pittsburgh and Syracuse on the road and Connecticut at the Wachovia Center). After losing today, Villanova would need to beat free-falling Miami on Senior Night, as well as at least two of the three ranked schools, to get to nine conference wins. While there's always the chance that a miracle might materialize, Villanova probably doesn't have the talent or experience to beat TWO ranked opponents, away from the Pavilion, over the next couple of weeks. Nor would 9-7 even be a guarantee of a bid; Seton Hall had 10 wins last year and didn't qualify.

Also, while the last five and a half minutes were - certainly - tremendously exciting, it can't obscure the fact that Villanova was SOUNDLY beaten in this game. If Villanova had somehow gotten out of the building with a victory, that would have been a grand larceny. It will go into the record books as a narrow two-point loss, but that is VERY deceptive. The Hall had this game in the bag and somehow nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Had this game gone the other way (and had its loss eventually cost them a NCAA bid) this game would have been immortalized for YEARS on the SHU site. After leading by a single point at intermission, the Pirates had begun looting and plundering, hoarding a substantial double-digit lead early in the second half. Their lead remained as high as 65-49 with 5:22 to play and the game was apparently over (and had been, for quite some time), prior to Foye's late-game heroics (he had 14 of his 15 points in the last 6:16!)

Villanova now owns a commanding 54-37 edge over Seton Hall in the all-time series, one of its oldest rivalries. It dates back to 1921 (Villanova's first season), and Seton Hall's program is even older: a floor decal at the Continental Airlines Arena proudly noted that we are in the midst of the 100th season of Pirate basketball.

But most of that 'Nova advantage was accumulated, prior to the P.J. Carlesimo
era at the Hall. 'Nova beat Seton Hall in the first 13 contests as members of the Big East - but since then, SHU has done quite well, winning 17 out of the next 28 from the Wildcats. And it's been even worse at the Meadowlands. Since 1987, Seton Hall has hosted Villanova 14 times, and Villanova has won just three games.

Originally, the game looked like it would be pretty tight, despite Villanova's dismal history in the building. Villanova led 13-11 early, but Seton Hall was matching them at every turn and finally made a charge when the 'Cats went cold. The Pirates took advantage of a severe 'Nova drought, beginning at the midpoint of the first half, going up 27-20. When Sumpter converted a layup with 4:17 to play, it was 'Nova's first field goal since that point. But 'Nova hung on; after Barrett held the ball for the last shot and protecting a 33-30 SHU lead, Sumpter intercepted a misplay by Sweet and was fouled by him on a breakaway at the other end with 1.3 seconds to go; Sumpter's pair of free throws made it 33-32 at the buzzer and gave 'Nova some momentum.

At halftime, Villanova had to feel good about the fact that they had shot 50% from the floor (a strong percentage, especially on the road) and were a perfect 10-10 from the line - but had turned the ball over 11 times already. Ray had 14 points and Sumpter eight, but Foye had picked up two fouls and played just 11 minutes.

It probably helped that Seton Hall does not benefit from much of a homecourt advantage. With no on-campus arena, the Pirate faithful do not turn out in large numbers, even this year, when SHU has a fairly successful team, and as a result, it is arguably the most visitor-friendly building in the league.

Villanova collapsed when play resumed. The Wildcats once again went ice-cold, making just two of their first 15 shots (not a typo) in the second half. The Pirates' lead ballooned to 47-34, then 54-37 (a 21-5 run to start the half). The entire second half appeared to be garbage time, as Villanova seemed to be in a stupor for much of the game play. (At one point, with nine minutes to play, the 'Cats rolled the ball inbounds to save a fraction of a second, perhaps a wise move when you're trailing in the last two or three minutes, but an unpleasantly defeatist display, when you're only down 15 with nine minutes left. And I've always felt that it wasn't worth risking a turnover to do that, anyway.)

Then the inexplicable near-comeback took place, with Foye raining in baskets. 'Nova was still down by as much at 67-52 at 3:49, and 67-54 at the 3:32 mark, before outscoring the Hall 14-3 the rest of the way to nearly sink the Pirate ship, when it appeared to be in a safe harbor.

An NBA 3 from Foye cut the lead to 67-61 with 2:19 to play, leading to a Seton Hall timeout and some serious nerve-wracking moments on their bench. 'Nova got the lead down to 69-68 with 28.8 seconds to go, and after Barrett missed the front end of a one-and-one, had a chance to tie or take the lead, but Foye missed a three, which went out of bounds with 6.8 seconds to play. SHU nearly threw away the inbound pass, but Whitney was fouled with 5.7 seconds left. He made the first one (the really pressure-packed one), but missed the second. Unfortunately, 'Nova had no timeouts remaining and couldn't set up - and although they still would have had plenty of time, the Wildcats couldn't cleanly control the rebound, bobbling the ball. By the time Foye had a chance to fire a badly misguided shot, all the way from midcourt, the shot wouldn't have counted anyhow.

And the schedule only grows more arduous from here. Villanova will return to action at Syracuse's Carrier Dome on Monday night, to take on the defending national champion and 24th-ranked Orangemen. At the same time Villanova was making its comeback, Syracuse survived a shocking scare from ancestral archrival Georgetown at the MCI Center, which required a Gerry McNamara buzzer-beating triple to break a 54-54 tie.

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