Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Turnovers Rule As Syracuse Stops 'Nova, 64-59

In arguably one of the ugliest games of the season, Syracuse managed to
extract itself from a turnover-saturated morass at the Carrier Dome to stop
Villanova, 64-59, as the two schools combined for a shockingly sloppy 38 turnovers. Gerry McNamara connected six straight free throws in the last 1:01 to preserve the Orangemen's victory. The defending national champions, are still not a lock for a NCAA bid despite being the last team out of the Top 25 (with an RPI of 29, they top the also-receiving-votes category this week). They needed this win with a tough schedule coming up down the stretch. But for 'Nova, its 21 turnovers led to yet another loss, its fourth in five games, as it prepares for the Big East tournament, its only meaningful hope for a NCAA bid.

Villanova fell to under. 500 in Big East play, at 6-7, while dropping to
14-12 overall. Villanova would need to sweep its remaining three Big East games,
which seems profoundly unlikely at this point, given that two are against
top-10 teams. (And even that still might not get them into the tournament.) The
Wildcats will likely cruise past Miami at the Pavilion on Senior Night, but
look to be defeated by #8 Connecticut at the Wachovia Center and #4 Pittsburgh,
at Pittsburgh. Syracuse improved to 8-5 Big East, 18-6 overall, and is
well-positioned to receive the opportunity to defend its national championship come

As might be expected when only 59 points are scored, no Wildcat scored more
than a dozen points: Curtis Sumpter led the squad with 12 and posted another
double-double with 10 boards. Jason Fraser had 10 points and eight rebounds
prior to fouling out down the stretch, and Allan Ray scuffled to 10 points. Ray
and Foye combined for a dismal shooting night, combining to shoot 6-25 from
the floor, which spells defeat for 'Nova most nights. (Foye also committed
seven turnovers.) Villanova also finished the game shooting just 7-23 (30%) from
beyond the arc, and for a perimeter-based team that lacks a consistent scoring
option in the paint, that can be lethal. For Syracuse, McNamara and
Philadelphia native Hakim Warrick each scored 18 points, with Warrick playing all 40
minutes and just missing a double-double with 9 boards. The pair combined to
go an outstanding 21-24 from the free-throw line. Two other Orangemen reached
double figures, as Josh Pace added 14 while Louie McCroskey had 10.

Villanova missed 14 of its first 18 shots, and consequently had just 19
points entering the final minute, before a flurry of offense. By the under-eight
minute timeout, at 7:32, Villanova had scored just one field goal in over an
eight-minute span, and was trailing 19-11. Even with four points in the final
minute, Villanova still managed just 23 first-half points, shooting a wretched
33% from the floor and 20% from beyond the arc, prior to intermission. With
0.8 seconds to play, and the ball out of bounds under the Syracuse basket,
Nardi lobbed it to Sumpter, who deftly sank it at the buzzer, while also being
fouled. Sumpter missed the rare free throw on an empty lane (a deceptively
difficult thing to try), but the play gave the 'Cats some momentum heading into
intermission, trailing just 27-23. Why was it so close, in light of Villanova's
struggles from the floor? Fortunately, Syracuse wasn't any better, in terms
of field goal accuracy, as the Orangemen were at an equally wretched 33%.

When play resumed, after falling behind 44-35, 'Nova kept hanging around and
pulled to within 44-40 on a dunk by Fraser at the 8:30 mark, leading to a
Syracuse timeout. The run continued, though, and a triple by Ray gave VU what
would be its only second half lead at 49-48, with 4:50 to play, and another
Syracuse timeout.

However, Syracuse rallied and - due to some beckoning by Boeheim - the
Carrier Dome crowd began to engage itself in the game. The Orangemen retook control
with two baskets and by forcing a jump ball, taking possession and triggering
the under-4 minute TV timeout. They led 52-49 and never relinquished the
lead, going on to score six more unopposed points and extending their lead to
58-49 with under two minutes to play, including the shot that probably decided
the game, a huge three by McCroskey at the 2:34 mark. Villanova, in a late-game
storm reminiscent of their oh-so-close near-comeback at Seton Hall Saturday
afternoon, rallied to cut it to 58-54 with 1:21 to play (on an "and-one" from
Will Sheridan) and even 62-59 with 36.7 seconds to go (another basket from
Sheridan), but Syracuse's steadiness at the line was enough to preserve the
victory for the home club.

Coach Jay Wright opted to use just seven players tonight, with bright spots
off the bench being Sheridan, who finished with eight points and four boards
while playing 20 minutes (including the key baskets at crunch time) and Derrick
Snowden. The senior point guard, relegated to the bench by the
Wright-recruited trio of guards and an injury, played 25 minutes of hard-nosed defensive
basketball and helped spark the comeback. (Nardi played just 15 minutes due to
foul trouble, and eventually fouled out.) Snowden's defense was a big reason
why Syracuse shot a miserable 18% (2-11) from beyond the arc. Andreas Bloch
did not see action, while Marcus Austin continues to sit out due to injury.

Worth noting: Syracuse's Jeremy McNeil managed to foul out, despite playing
only six minutes.

Long-time coach Jim Boeheim, who has been at Syracuse for longer than all
players on the court tonight have been alive, improved to 29-23 all-time against
Villanova. Jay Wright lost to Syracuse for the first time ever, against two
victories, both in his first year at the helm. (Wright was whistled for a
technical midway through the second half.) The teams did not play last year, for
the first time since Villanova joined the Big East in 1980-81, due to the
since-abolished BE procedure of missing three opponents per year. The loss was
'Nova's fifth in seventh games to the Orangemen, after winning both meetings in
the 2001-02 season (one in the regular season and one in the BE tournament).
Syracuse now leads the all-time series, 31-23. Villanova leads in
regular-season BE games by a 20-19 margin, but the Orangemen have topped 'Nova eight
times in 11 games in BE tournament play. Surprisingly, Villanova has enjoyed some
success at the Carrier Dome; the loss tonight put the Wildcats at 10-12 there
all-time, which is probably one of the better records there for any visiting

This long-time BE rivalry would have perished in the off-season, except for
the inherent greed of the ACC schools and internal politics of the Commonwealth
of Virginia. Syracuse was one of the original three schools (along with
Boston College and Miami) who flirted with the ACC during the off-season.
However, Virginia - which held the swing vote in the ACC on the issue of extending
invitations - was forced by the state legislature to tie its "Yes" vote on ACC
expansion, to the admission of in-state Virginia Tech, instead of Syracuse or
Boston College. The ACC originally voted, over the summer, to grant membership
only to Miami and Virginia Tech, but a separate deal announced in October
spirited BC out of the BE and down to Dixie as well. All of which leaves
Syracuse in a somewhat awkward position, as the only one of the four schools which
publicly expressed an interest in leaving the BE, but who now has to stay.
Although for public consumption, the remaining BE members are presenting a united
front, it has to be wondered if Syracuse is not still viewed with some
suspicion as a potential defector to another rival conference down the road.
Obviously, BC also publicly pledged its loyalty to the new-look BE and subsequently
decided to bolt for the ACC.

Villanova will enjoy several off-days, before returning to action at the
Wachovia Center, against #8 Connecticut, on Saturday afternoon. It will not be
crowded, which will be a real shame, given that the 'Cats could use the support
in trying to oust a national powerhouse.

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