Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Unfortunately, #3 Hawks Win Holy War, 74-67

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Unfortunately, the Wildcats were utterly unable to shut down SJU's three

major offensive weapons: Jameer Nelson, Delonte West, and Pat Carroll, who
combined to score 60 of SJU's 73 points. Nelson scored 23 points to lead all
scorers, while West had 21 points and Carroll had 16 (including a perfect 4-4 from
beyond the arc). It was the sixth time this season that SJU had its backcourt
tandem each reach 20 points in a game, and it cost 'Nova the contest. West
reached a double-double with 11 rebounds and also was a perfect 10-10 from the

In light of that fact, it's somewhat remarkable that the game was as close as
it was. Fortunately, the Wildcats received some offensive punch of their
own, with four players reaching double figures. Mike Nardi had an outstanding
contest, scoring 16 points and dealing five assists, to lead Villanova. Allan
Ray added 13, but the best part was the unexpected explosion of offense from
the previously dormant bench. Will Sheridan and Andreas Bloch each came off the
bench to score 10 points, a tremendous contribution from a group whose points
had been anemic in recent games. Bloch, who played just 16 minutes,
singlehandedly kept the 'Nova crowd in the game in the second half, draining shot
after shot. What really hurt 'Nova was the fact that Curtis Sumpter picked a
highly inopportune time to have the worst shooting night of his young Villanova
career. The budding star went a dreadful 1-14 from the floor, finishing with
just 9 points, 7 of them from the free throw line, where he also helped
establish SJU's dominance early on by missing his first three free throw attempts.
Sumpter finished 7-13 from the line, the worst offender in a horrendous
performance in that category by the team as a whole. After going a perfect 10-10 from
the line in Saturday's victory over West Virginia, the 'Cats went just 12-22
(55%) against SJU, a failure which ultimately could have cost them at least a
CHANCE at an upset.

All in all, it was a welcome contrast to the sorry spectacle at the Palestra
last season, when the Hawks celebrated the end of a decade of Holy War
frustration by embarrassing 'Nova, 92-75, in a game that was far more lopsided than
the score would indicate. SJU took a 40-9 lead to start that game, an event so
transfixing in the minds of Hawk fans that one particularly zealous soul even
immortalized it on his Pennsylvania license plate, according to Monday's
Philadelphia Daily News ("SJ40-VU9"). There was a reason for grave concern, given
that 'Nova came into the game with arguably a weaker team than last season,
while the Hawks came in unquestionably stronger. I was hoping that the game
would simply remain competitive and that there would not be a repeat of last
year's debacle.

Villanova dropped to 12-8 overall, 3-1 Big Five, as it concluded the
nonconference portion of its schedule. With the victory, the Hawks improved to 19-0
overall, 2-0 City Series; both the 19-0 start and the 19-game winning streak
are the longest in school history. Over the weekend, the #3 Hawks had a
reasonable chance of becoming #1, due to the struggles of #1 Duke and #2 Stanford on
Saturday. But both the Blue Devils and Cardinal recovered to win on the road,
thus depriving 'Nova of a shot at the #1 team in the country. The 'Cats
remain alive for NCAA consideration, but would have drastically improved their
chances, both from an RPI and perception aspect, had they been able to pull off
the upset. They will likely need a signature victory over a prominent opponent
to get in, most likely against either Connecticut or Pittsburgh in late
February/early March.

All in all, despite the unhappy ending, it was a marvelously entertaining
basketball game. The atmosphere was as raucous as I've heard the Pavilion,
rivaling the February 2002 clash with nationally ranked UCLA (although that game
was probably louder due to the fact that 'Nova eventually WON that game.) I
can't determine this fact conclusively, but SJU at #3 was probably the highest
ranked opponent to take the floor at the Pavilion in a decade, as most of
Villanova's toughest opponents are played downtown. On February 19, 1994, Villanova
topped #1 Connecticut at the Pavilion, which was probably the highest ranked
opponent there prior to tonight. It was certainly far more enjoyable than it
would have been at the Wachovia Center, where the game would have been played,
had it not been for a scheduling conflict.

Well over an hour before the late 8 PM tip-off, fans were streaming into the
Pavilion. When the 60 minute countdown began, at roughly 7 PM, about half the
student section was already full and cheering. A few minutes later, the 350
or so red-clad SJU partisans (their ranks swelled by a few VU ticketholders
who opted to make some money by selling their tickets) arrived, and proceeded to
the top of the North Section (i.e., as far away as they could possibly be
put, the standard visitor's exile at the Pavilion). (Absolute fact: many -
sincerely or otherwise - vocally expressed their disbelief that Villanova would
assign them such poor seats!) Some were wearing cowboy hats with "Wild Wild
West" T-shirts. I was surprised by how little SJU penetration there was of the
building, given the demand for tickets. Out of the 6,500 seat building (and
let's assume that there were actually 7,000 bodies in the place, as it was packed
to the rafters), I would estimate that only about 10% of the fans were
cheering for SJU (I had expected about 25%). Also, outside of the enclave reserved
for them, the rest of them were hopelessly scattered throughout the building,
rendering any noise virtually impossible. A quick scan of the student section
revealed only a handful of red-shirted Hawk fans.

The hour prior to the commencement of the game itself was happily spent by
the fans of the two schools chanting various cheers and insults back and forth,
the way it used to be in the Big Five. Most SJU cheers zeroed in on the phone
card scandal of last season, and Villanova's struggles this season ("12-7!";
"Chaminade Beat You!"). One guy walked in carrying a crudely-lettered sign
reading " '85 Wildcats: Overrated" (!?!) (Later in the game, he would publicly
hoist the sign to the amusement of the SJU enclave, before the sign was
confiscated and destroyed.)

The Pavilion authorities had opted to try to kill the fun, as signs
forbidding any signs or banners greeted fans as they arrived. However, it had little
effect. There were a couple of prominent Palestra-style VU rollouts, the most
memorable being "West: All-American Trainer Beater" (a reference to the
scandal last year regarding a fight between West and the SJU trainer, which broke
right before last year's Holy War).

There was a tremendous amount of electricity in the atmosphere at the
Pavilion, a real sense that this game was going to be quite memorable. The mood was
heightened when 'Nova appeared in throwback jerseys, an attempt to summon the
spirits of the past to help the 'Cats come up with a big upset over a
formidable opponent. (They were really cool and I hope they're used again. In
contrast, SJU came out dressed in their hideous black uniforms.)

In the beginning, it appeared that SJU was going to cruise to a second
consecutive blowout victory. VU scuffled at the line especially, missing five of
its first seven free throws. When a team is struggling to find quality shots
(and Villanova certainly was throughout this game) it's a real momentum-killer
to waste opportunities at the foul line. 'Nova couldn't score, and SJU was
handing it chances to score and they STILL couldn't put it in the bucket. After
Villanova build a very modest 5-4 advantage, the Hawks raced out to a 12-5
lead after a three-pointer by Tyrone Barley, forcing coach Jay Wright to take a
timeout in the early going. It didn't help; it soon became a 18-5 lead, after
a dunk by Dwyane Jones at the 10:30 mark. Consecutive three-pointers from
Dave Mallon and Carroll swelled the lead to 27-8 with 8:22 to go, forcing VU
coach Jay Wright to call another timeout. Except for the Hawk fans, the Pavilion
was silent as a tomb.

'Nova scored six quick points (four of them by Randy Foye) to pull within
27-14, but SJU responded by pushing the lead back out to 34-16. Mercifully, the
under-4-minute TV timeout was whistled here, giving 'Nova some time to
regroup; Wright certainly didn't want to use all of his timeouts in the first half,
but the game was beginning to slip away. Villanova managed to chip away at the
lead, though, scoring five points to end the half, but more importantly,
played quality defense: SJU didn't score again after that timeout, for the rest of
the half. At intermission, the Hawks' lead was down to 34-23.

The halftime numbers reflected the fact that SJU had been dominating play.
VU was shooting only 28% from the floor, 13% from beyond the arc, and 46% from
the line, and had no player in double figures. SJU's numbers in the same
categories were 48%, 63% and 75%; in light of such an appalling contrast, it's
amazing that 'Nova was only down by 11. And quick SJU had seven points off fast
breaks, while the plodding 'Cats had zero.

There was sort of a "wait-and-see" buzz with the crowd, and fortunately,
after play resumed, the 'Cats did give them some stuff worth cheering over.
Villanova would win the second half 44-40, and along the way threw more than one
serious scare into the Hawk fans (both the small number at the Pavilion and the
far larger number in the SJU Fieldhouse watching it) that their undefeated
season might founder on the Main Line.

In the opening two minutes of the second half, 'Nova leapt right back into
the game, going on a 7-2 run to pull within 36-30, and the Pavilion was starting
to make some noise. Unfortunately, Foye was whistled for two quick fouls and
had to sit down with three. SJU responded with six points from Nelson and
West, pushing the lead back to 46-35, the same 11-point margin it had been at
halftime, and in the midst of it Foye picked up his fourth foul. Uggh.

Villanova hung in there, though. The lead was reduced to 48-42, with just
over nine minutes to play, even with Foye on the bench. You never know. Bloch
canned a three-pointer to make it 54-50 with just under seven minutes to play,
and the under-8-minute timeout came shortly after. At that point, the most
stunning event of the night took place.

A fan was pulled out of the audience to take the halfcourt shot for a Land
Rover. With the poise and aplomb of a jaded, long-time performer, he calmly
stepped to the microphone and asked "Jameer who?" and then equally calmly MADE
the halfcourt shot!!!! and won the car. The Pavilion exploded. The guy seemed
reasonably excited, but not QUITE as excited as most people would be in
similar situations (probably out of shock...) Taking a page from NFL wide
receivers, he briskly walked over in the direction of the SJU enclave and made the
universal "I can't hear you" signal by cupping his ear, and took a pom-pom from a
male SJU cheerleader. He was getting a huge hand, and coupled with Bloch's
triple, it appeared that all of the momentum was going 'Nova's way. It didn't
seem out of the question that this guy's winning a car might be the catalyst to
put Villanova over the top, because he really got the crowd pumped with his

But, alas, it was not to be. Pat Carroll drained threes on the next two
possessions, and although 'Nova was scoring, they never retook the momentum. It
was 60-52 after the second three and the dream was slipping away. Despite some
further heroics from Bloch, SJU began burying the 'Cats under free throws.
After Wright had held him out as long as he dared, Foye fouled out with four
minutes to play, shortly after he returned from the bench, and that might have
ended Villanova's hopes. SJU extended the lead all the way back to 69-58 with
2:32 to play and the embers were all but extinguished. Ray made it a bit more
interesting when he nailed a three to cut it to 73-67 with 25 seconds to go,
but SJU would have required a complete collapse at the line to lose, which
didn't happen.

Overall, the Wildcats did quite well, against a clearly superior opponent.
The Hawks demonstrated why they are the #3 team in the nation. This SJU team
is not similar to the Hawk teams that had Cinderella runs in 1997 and 2001.
This team is actually supremely talented, and plays outstanding five-man
basketball, and Villanova was just overmatched. You could sense it, just watching
the ball movement, that Nelson and West have developed a feel for making their
teammates better, that the 'Cats' young backcourt is nowhere near achieving
(which is not their fault, because it's a high standard to reach). Throughout
the game, it was an EFFORT for Villanova to get good looks at the basket, while
SJU was making it look effortless, in contrast. The Villanova guards
(including Derrick Snowden, who had a solid performance in his 14 minutes off the
bench before fouling out) were exerting themselves to the max, just to break the
press when SJU decided to clamp it down. And when they made a mistake, it was
like a mousetrap snapping down. Two points for the visitors. SJU was
running set plays to take advantage of fast breaks that were virtually automatic, to
the point where you recognized that if VU turned over the ball at midcourt,
it would basically amount to a Hawk basket. In short, Villanova was going to
need to play virtually error-free to win, and it doesn't have the skills to
play error-free basketball (yet). And in light of that fact, it's astonishing to
consider that if Sumpter had played anywhere approaching his normal game, or
if the 'Cats had enjoyed a strong game at the foul line, that 'Nova could have

The loss means that Villanova probably will not take the Big Five title this
season; the 'Cats last won it in 2000-01. Although the Wildcats finished the
City Series with a strong 3-1 mark, and SJU is only 2-0, it is not likely that
the Hawks will lose to either La Salle or Temple, their two remaining Big
Five games, and will probably sweep the City Series at 4-0. A shared title with
both SJU and Villanova at 3-1, is a more realistic hope.

Villanova should take some pride in offering as stiff a challenge as anyone
has all season to the powerhouse Hawks. The seven-point victory margin is one
of the closest games SJU has had all year; only victories against Old Dominion
- a scary name to 'Nova fans - by 3 points and California by 2 points were
closer, and nationally ranked Gonzaga also lost by seven (although it was a
neutral court game in New York, with SJU having many more fans there).

The loss trims Villanova's lead in the all-time series to 38-23 overall, and
27-22 as members of the Big Five. Villanova had done so well recently in the
series, that it was the first time in a few that SJU had managed to win two
consecutive games over the Wildcats. Not since winning back-to-back contests in
February 1993 and December 1994 had the Hawks won twice in a row. They
haven't won three in a row since the mid-1960s, when the Hawks were in their
heyday, and so that perhaps can keep some hope alive for next year's Holy War.

It was also SJU's second victory at the Pavilion, in six tries. The Hawks
won their debut appearance, in December 1987, but then dropped four straight,
the most recent being a 102-73 drubbing on January 28, 2002, during Jay Wright's
first year at the helm. (Phil Martelli is still only 2-5 against Villanova.)
For 'Nova, it was only their second loss to a Big Five opponent at the
Pavilion since 1994 (a November 2001 loss to La Salle in overtime). All-time,
Villanova is 12-7 in City Series games there.

From one rivalry to another: Villanova will turn its attention to Georgetown
in a rare Thursday game, when they travel to the MCI Center in Washington to
take on the Hoyas.

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