Sunday, February 01, 2004

Villanova Dynamites Mountaineers, 73-58

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Villanova improved its record to 4-3 Big East, 12-7 overall, and received a well-needed confidence boost, as it prepares to host #3 St. Joseph's, one of two undefeated teams remaining (at 18-0), on Monday night. WVU dropped to 3-4 Big East, 11-8 overall. Despite the loss of Drew Schifino, who was suspended for violating team rules on Jan. 9 and hasn't played since then, WVU had won three straight. Schifino averaged over 20 points/game last year and was averaging over 17 this year prior to the suspension. The Wildcats excel when the young backcourt trio of Mike Nardi, Randy Foye, and Allan Ray all reach double figures, and all did today. Ray led 'Nova with 20 points. Foye rebounded from some disappointing games with a 13 point day, and Nardi added 10. Curtis Sumpter also reached double figures with 10 points. Another unexpected bright spot came from Andreas Bloch, an outside shooting specialist who isn't a banger in the paint or a playmaker: Bloch came up with seven rebounds in just 16 minutes of action, and also had three assists. The evolution of Bloch from seldom-used sharpshooter to valuable role player has been the biggest surprise of the year.

For WVU, Tyrone Sally led the way with 13 points. Patrick Beilein, the son of WVU coach John Beilein, added 11 points, while Philadelphia native D'Or Fischer, WVU's big gun and the player Villanova had the most reason to fear, scored 10 points (he was plagued with foul trouble, and played just 28 minutes).

The 'Cats exploded near the end of the first half, breaking open a game which had been tight throughout the early going. The key play was a three from Andreas Bloch, which swirled around the rim, seemed to drop out of the cylinder, but then almost switched course to drop in. It was one of those omen plays that seem to indicate that it will be a good day for one team, and so it was. 'Nova took control soon after, and was never seriously threatened for the rest of the way. At halftime, the 'Cats held a commanding 39-25 advantage after shooting a torrid 53% from the floor, including 5-12 from three-point range; in contrast, WVU was 2-10 from beyond the arc. Ray had half of his 20 by halftime, to lead all scorers.

WVU's only semblance of a charge came when they pulled as close as six with less than nine minutes to play. Fortunately, Ray came up with a big triple, and after Villanova forced a held ball, WVU turned the ball over on a five-second call. The momentum was safely back to 'Nova and the 'Cats cruised after that. The Mountaineers battled 'Nova to a 34-34 draw in the second half, but Villanova's halftime cushion was sufficient to assure victory. The student section punctuated the final minute, with some brief chants of "We Want St. Joe's" (which at the time was engrossed in defeating Big Five rival Temple at the Liacouras Center.)

It was particularly pleasant to see garbage time, as Jay Wright emptied his bench with 48 seconds to play; allowing Tom Grace to make a cameo appearance. The bench is becoming very thin, though, and it makes the strong performances from Sheridan and Bloch that much more important. Derrick Snowden, who at the beginning of the season was considered vital to the team's success, played just four minutes, as did Chris Charles. Marcus Austin, once again, did not see action. The only regression came from Jason Fraser, who after several strong games got caught in foul trouble and played just 19 minutes, scoring two points and taking three rebounds.

Villanova ultimately filled up the stat sheet well, shooting an outstanding 59% from the floor and achieving perfection from the foul line (10-10), while recording 18 assists on 27 field goals. The lopsided game down the stretch meant that WVU wasn't fouling and thus 'Nova didn't get many chances at the line; there weren't many whistles, anyway (WVU got there just eight times, making six.)

The win represented Villanova's sixth victory in its last eight tries against West Virginia, in a series which dates back to 1938. The teams played most often in the 1970s, but the series discontinued for a while until WVU joined the Big East for the 1995-96 season. Since then, Villanova is now 6-4 in BE regular-season games against the Mountaineers, but also owns a pair of BE conference tournament victories over WVU. Unfortunately, Villanova will have to travel to Morgantown to play WVU on Feb. 14, as the Mountaineers are one of only three Big East teams Villanova must face twice this season. (With WVU in the West Division until this season, the teams haven't faced each other twice in the regular season since the 1998-99 season, and that year, they also played in the BE tournament.) Although the 'Cats have done surprisingly well there, splitting four contests in BE play, it is notorious as an extremely difficult venue for a visiting team.

The Wildcats will return to action on Monday with a chance to sweep the City Series for the first time since 2000-01, as they close out their Big Five schedule (the 'Cats already have beaten Temple, La Salle, and Penn.) The #3 St. Joseph's Hawks soar into the Pavilion with a 18-0 record (and had a few more shots fallen for Georgia Tech and Oregon on Saturday, Villanova could have had a chance to defeat a #1 team).

SJU has already sold out all of its home games this season. As a result, SJU fans, who per the Big Five agreement receive only 250 tickets for the game, have driven the black-market price for Pavilion tickets to stratospheric levels, and many will be in attendance for the annual revival of this ancient clash. For the first time in many years, SJU will be the overwhelming favorite against 'Nova. In addition to the crosstown rivalry at stake, a Villanova victory would go a long way toward convincing the Selection Committee that the 'Cats belong in the field of 64. It may even be a NECESSARY victory, at this point, for 'Nova's NCAA hopes.

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