Friday, March 12, 2004

11th-seeded 'Nova Upsets #20 Providence in Big East Tournament Quarterfinals

One of the many glorious aspects of college basketball is its
unpredictability. Villanova, which, just a a week ago, appeared ready to fold its tents
after another frustrating season, has rejuvenated itself, after winning a second
game in the Big East tournament, for the first time in seven years. The
11th-seeded Wildcats upset #20 Providence - the third seed - 69-66 in Thursday
night's quarterfinal contest. With the triumph, the 'Cats have virtually assured
themselves of their fifth consecutive NIT invitation, and will extend their
streak of postseason appearances to six: the last time they failed to appear was
1998. It has even led to speculation that the Wildcats could capture one of
the most unlikely NCAA bids in school history, by actually winning the Big East

But even if the Wildcats' Cinderella run ends on Friday night, it has already
yielded some benefits, both immediate and historical. The immediate benefits
are the NIT bid and the theoretical possibility of going to the NCAAs with
two more victories. But Villanova has now become the first team in Big East
history to enter the conference tournament with a losing record and still win two
games. And it remains the strongest BE tournament run since 1997, when Tim
Thomas, Alvin Williams and Jason Lawson keyed the top-seeded Wildcats to the
final, where they finally fell to Boston College. Ironically, that was also the
last time Villanova faced Providence in the Big East tournament; they ousted
the Friars in the semifinals.

The victory was particularly sweet in light of the fact that Providence had
humiliated 'Nova at the Pavilion, exactly a month ago on Feb. 11. In that
contest, the Friars handed 'Nova a 100-74 loss, the worst in the history of both
the Pavilion and the 76 game, 68 year history of the series. Providence had
also won at home on Jan. 21, sweeping the season series. But, in general, it's
tough to defeat a talented opponent three times - as Villanova's performance
tonight indicated.

Villanova improved to 16-15 overall, and thus can finish no worse than .500,
even if it loses to #9 Connecticut Friday night in the semifinals. As a
major-conference team at .500 or better, it will receive a de facto automatic bid
from the NIT. Providence is reeling, having dropped three straight games, and
has finished with a record of 20-8 overall. Although their NCAA at-large bid
is 100% assured, their seeding may be adversely affected by a quarterfinal
exit in the first game they were required to play. Also galling to the
Providence faithful is coach Tim Welsh's odd lack of success in the Big East
tournament, where he has fared just 1-6 during his tenure there. This was his first
loss to Villanova in Madison Square Garden.

All-time, Villanova OWNS Providence in the Big East tournament, having now
won six of the seven contests. In fact, the Wildcats have a higher winning
percentage against the Friars in tournament play, than any other BE team (with the
exception of West Virginia, but there have only been two meetings, both won
by the 'Cats.) However, unfortunately, they haven't met much recently; this
was the first time they'd met since 1997, as noted above. In the mid-90s, the
teams clashed in the conference tournament four straight seasons, from 1994-97,
and Villanova won three of those meetings.

All of the hypothetical pieces of the Jay Wright era finally came together
tonight. By far the most important was Jason Fraser, who demonstrated why he
was so coveted as a high school prospect. Fraser had one of the best games of
his career, scoring 17 points and grabbing five rebounds, as he finally
provided Villanova with the interior scoring option it had so badly lacked all
season. And it was particularly crucial because of the way the game was called.
Both teams were mired in foul trouble the entire night. From Villanova's end,
it meant that Allan Ray and Curtis Sumpter, the team's two most important
offensive weapons (both third-team all-Big East players), were forced to the bench
for much of the evening. Sumpter barely played (just 13 minutes) and Ray
played only 26 (after playing all 40 in the victory over Seton Hall the night
before), although he still managed to score 15 points. So someone had to
contribute unexpected offense to replace their usual output. Tonight, it was Fraser.

After his last-second game-winner against Seton Hall, Randy Foye also stepped
up, big-time, scoring 15 points. He also played the lead role in knocking
out Providence down the stretch, when he scored five straight points after
Villanova had fallen behind 58-54 with under four minutes to play, and it appeared
Providence might be pulling ahead for good. And Mike Nardi had a superb game,
scoring 11 points and nailing what turned out to be the game-deciding shot, a
three which broke Providence's spirit in the final minute. With 53.6 seconds
to play, Nardi's triple gave Villanova a decisive 64-58 lead, from which PC
never recovered. Best of all, Nardi played 39 minutes (a huge contribution
with so many guys in foul trouble), dealt seven assists and committed only a
single turnover.

For Providence, Sheiku Kabba was the driving force. Kabba led all scorers
with 24 points on outstanding 9-13 shooting, on a night when most of
Providence's big guns were also hobbled by foul trouble. No other Friar reached double
figures, as Ryan Gomes (a first-team all-Big East selection) and Rob Sanders
each finished with just nine points - both were plagued by fouls. Sanders
played just 23 minutes, prior to fouling out with nearly seven minutes to play in
the second half.

The game was entertaining to watch, although the frequent whistles did mar it
a bit. Both teams were hustling after every loose ball and showed some
spirited character as the lead swung from side to side. The closest either side
had to a decisive lead came near the end of the first half, when a Kabba three
extended the Providence lead to 28-19, the largest it would ever be. But Ray
answered immediately with a three of his own, and Villanova trailed by just one
at halftime, 33-32. Ray's 13 points led 'Nova, while Kabba already had 14
for Providence. The teams were also about as evenly matched on the stats as
they could be.

In the second half, Fraser exploded; he had only three points at halftime but
scored 14 afterwards. The game began to resemble a war of attrition, due to
all of the fouls, as Wright and Welsh began shuttling players in and out to
try to shield them from being fouled out. But neither team could get the upper
hand and neither led by more than five, until Villanova surged ahead during
the final minute. There were a large number of ties and lead changes throughout
the game.

After Foye's five straight points had put 'Nova back on top, 59-58, with 2:31
to play, Sumpter scored his first field goal, pushing the lead up to 61-58,
and setting the stage for Nardi's triple, which ended the game. Thanks to
Nardi's shot, which made it 64-58, Villanova was able to survive both Ray and
Sumpter fouling out in the final minute, as PC never drew closer than four until
a deep (as in three feet behind the NBA line) three at the buzzer cut the
final margin to three, at 69-66.

The key statistic tonight was turnovers; Villanova committed a shockingly low
number of eight, while PC committed 15, undoubtedly one of the rare games
this season (and perhaps the only one) where 'Nova forced nearly twice as many
turnovers as it committed. Kudos must be given to the whole team for this
accomplishment, but the guards, especially.

On Friday night, Villanova will take on #9 Connecticut, the tournament's
second seed- but will probably have the unique advantage of not having to face
Emeka Okafor, the shot-blocker extraordinaire and arguably the best player in
America. Okafor has been struggling with back spasms, and did not play in
Connecticut's victory over Notre Dame earlier today. All indications are that
Okafor will be rested for Connecticut's putative deep NCAA tournament run, and
will not play against 'Nova. Villanova played arguably its best game of the
season in a breathtakingly close loss to the Huskies on Feb. 28.

Worth noting: a Villanova footnote to the demise of #1 St. Joseph's unbeaten
season, which was decisively ended by unranked Xavier this afternoon:

The Hawks' debacle of a defeat, also ironically erased one of Villanova's
many NCAA distinctions. Prior to today, Villanova's 1990 victory over #1
Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, by the score of 93-74, held the distinction of being
the most decisive defeat of a #1 team by an unranked team in NCAA history. But
Xavier's 20 point victory today, 85-65, has eclipsed that mark, by a single
point. And for some reason, that 1990 game didn't even qualify for the VU media
guide's list of the top 21 greatest games in school history.

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