Saturday, February 14, 2004

Villanova Slides Down the Mountain at WVU, 67-60

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Villanova is now in serious trouble from a NCAA-tournament perspective. After a long string of alternating victories and defeats, the Wildcats have now lost three straight and four of their last five, including Wednesday's catastrophic 100-76 loss to Providence, the worst defeat EVER at the Pavilion, the worst defeat against Providence in a 77-game, 68-year series, and only the second time an opponent had scored 100 points there.

Today's loss dropped their record to 5-5 Big East, 13-10 overall. Of their remaining six games, three are against nationally ranked opponents, and a fourth is at Seton Hall, in the "also-receiving-votes" category. Villanova is only likely to be favored to win, in home dates against Virginia Tech and Miami (soon to be out of the Big East Conference). 'Nova would need to win at least FOUR out of the six to have a
meaningful shot at an at-large bid, to push its Big East record over .500 at 9-7. But given the team's recent string of lackluster performances, that does not seem likely.

West Virginia improved to 6-5 Big East, 14-8 overall. The Mountaineers have been on a bit of a roll recently, having won six of their last eight after a mediocre start, and have moved to the fringes of NCAA consideration.

Villanova now leads the all-time series with West Virginia by a slim 18-14, and as members of the Big East, 6-5, plus two BE tournament victories. The Mountaineers have now won three of their last five games over 'Nova, including the last two at the WVU Coliseum, notorious for being one of the most hostile venues for a visitor in the conference. (Villanova has enjoyed modest success there, however, going 2-3 in that building since WVU joined the Big East for the 1995-96 season.)

For West Virginia, Tyrone Sally carried the banner with 20 points, leading all scorers, and nearly posted a double-double with nine rebounds, while going 8-8 from the line. Kevin Pittsnogle contributed 18 points and Johannes Herber added 11. For 'Nova, only Randy Foye (13 points) and Allan Ray (12 points) reached double figures, although Curtis Sumpter did collect 10 rebounds. Foye had a strong overall game, posting five steals, grabbing eight boards and dealing five assists as well, while committing only a single turnover.

The first half, to put it mildly, was an embarrassment for 'Nova, a mere extension of the debacle against Providence on Wednesday. After grabbing a quick 4-0 lead, the 'Cats crumbled, failing to score a basket for seven minutes. The Mountaineers, egged on by an ecstatic crowd, retook the lead at 15-14, and then exploded.

WVU embarked upon a 22-4 run to close the half with a 37-18 advantage. The final play was typical, as WVU held the ball for the last shot, then fed Pittsnogle for a blind-side three-pointer at the top of the key at the buzzer. (It looked like 'Nova might only end up with 14 at the half, prior
to a brief flurry of scoring at the end.)

The halftime numbers were abysmal. The keys to victory for Villanova, given the three-guard offense favored by coach Jay Wright, is for big games from Foye, Ray and Mike Nardi. At halftime, that trio of guards had combined for a grand total of two points (from Foye). As a team, 'Nova had shot an anemic 7-25 (28%) from the floor, and 1-11 (9%) from three-point range, the chief explanation for why they only managed 18 points for the half. They had four assists
against 11 turnovers (WVU had 10 assists against five turnovers, a disturbing contrast).

Jason Fraser was the team's leading scorer with seven points, while WVU already had Sally and Pittsnogle in double figures at 14 and 10 points, respectively. The game appeared to be well in hand for WVU. There did not appear to be ANY evidence that 'Nova was going to rise from the dead and erase an 18-point lead on the road in a tough building.

However, give the Wildcats credit; they almost pulled it off. After WVU increased their lead to 20 early in the second half, going up 45-25, 'Nova answered with nine quick points, forcing a WVU timeout with 10:02. It didn't seem to help, as they scored five more: all told, an amazing 14-0 run to chop the deficit to 45-39, keyed by a wide-open three from Nardi. After turning the ball over on the next possession, WVU coach John Beilein called another timeout, trying to stem the tide. But 'Nova kept surging: Foye's triple trimmed the lead to 47-42 with just under eight minutes to play, and what would have been a truly stunning comeback seemed possible.

And although the 'Cats got the deficit down to an oh-so-narrow two points on three separate occasions, they could never get over the hump. The last gasp came when 'Nova reduced the WVU lead to 53-51 with 3:40 to play. But WVU got the crowd back into the game, silent during their collapse, and finished the game with a 14-9 advantage to win by seven. With its collective adrenaline perhaps spent by erasing such a huge disadvantage, 'Nova was never able to get the
really big three-pointers that it needed, to drop at crunch time.

Among the many problems on display today, the most serious was the lack of a dominant inside force in the paint. WVU appeared to have the reincarnation of Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo underneath, as D'Or Fischer (a Philadelphia native) and Jamon Durisseau-Collins had half a dozen blocks APIECE, and neither of them played as much as 30 minutes (Fischer had 27 and Collins 24).

'Nova had ONE block for the entire game. Fraser was hobbled by foul trouble (he had four) and played only 21 minutes. While he was on the floor, he played well (seven points and eight rebounds in what amounted to only a single half of action), but Villanova simply can't function offensively, when its shots are being swatted away in such disproportionate amounts.

(Ironically, Villanova enjoyed a 39-32 advantage on the glass, but the blocks were what mattered.)

With Fraser on the bench and Chris Charles playing only two minutes, Wright went with a small lineup for most of the game, but the guards' outside shots just weren't falling (Villanova made only 8 out of 26 attempts, just 31%.) It didn't help that 'Nova once again turned the ball over frequently, coughing the ball up 16 times against nine for West Virginia. Those factors were what limited 'Nova to just 60 points, and scoring only 60 points will get
you beat most games. And making it to 60 was actually a pretty impressive accomplishment today, given that the Wildcats only had 18 at halftime. The 'Cats won the second half, on the road, 42-30, but the original abyss was so deep that they STILL couldn't overcome it.

The Wildcats will return to action at the Pavilion on Wednesday, in what will likely be its last game for many years against Virginia Tech, unless they meet in the Big East tournament. The Hokies, along with Miami will be packing their bags for the Atlantic Coast Conference at the end of the season (Boston College, which is also departing, is hoping to escape by the end of the year as well).

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