Saturday, March 13, 2004

'Cats Fall to #9 UConn, Head to NIT

Villanova's glorious, long-shot Big East tournament run came to an end Friday
night, as the 11th-seeded Wildcats simply ran out of gas against a superior
#9 Connecticut squad, 84-67, in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New
York City. Despite the loss to a back injury of arguably the best player in
America, Emeka Okafor, the 2nd-seeded Huskies breezed past the 'Cats to reach
the tournament final, where they will face #6 Pittsburgh, for the third
straight year. But most importantly, Villanova reached the goal it had set when it
arrived in New York: come home with the two necessary wins to assure
qualification for the 40-team NIT. And the Wildcats did.

Villanova finished its season at 16-16 overall, having just reached the .500
record for official NIT consideration, with the pair of victories this week
over Seton Hall and #20 Providence. The hated Huskies improved to 26-6 overall
with the victory. The Huskies will be battling Pitt for the third straight
season in the final; this marks the first time in the Big East's 25 year
history, that the same two teams have met in the final three years in a row. Each
team has won once. Coach Jim Calhoun will seek his sixth tournament
championship, which would tie him with former Georgetown coach and Villanova nemesis
Thompson for the most ever.

Three sophomores - Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser - had
tremendous games for 'Nova, but everyone else had an off-night. Those three scored
54 of 'Nova's 67 points. Fraser, in particular, has shown a tremendous
improvement during this tournament run, in which he has barely resembled the
struggling sophomore he was all season. And that fact, more than any other, made the
run possible. Fraser matched his season-high with 17 points, while recording
another double-double with 11 rebounds. Foye paced the Wildcats with 20
points, while Sumpter finished with 17 points and 7 rebounds before fouling out
with two minutes to play. The Wildcats were badly hurt by a horrible game from
Allan Ray, who had an atrocious night, making just one of ten shots from the
floor and finishing with two points. Ray was saddled with foul trouble and
limited to just 25 minutes, and he still fouled out with over eight minutes to

Even with Okafor out of the lineup, the Huskies demonstrated why they are
among the handful of elite teams with legitimate aspirations to capture the
national championship, with four players having outstanding games. At least, Ben
Gordon may finally be leaving for the NBA. The Connecticut junior, who first
burst into the Villanova fans' enemies list with a shot to beat 'Nova in the
2001 Big East tournament, gave 'Nova fans something else by which to remember
him. Gordon scored a game-high 29 points, some on incredible shots which were
impossible to defend, and added six rebounds. Villanova had nobody who could
guard him- but probably, neither does any other school in America. If Gordon
gets hot, he really cannot be shut down. He also had 29 points in the Huskies'
victory over Notre Dame in the quarterfinals last night. Not to be outdone,
senior guard Taliek Brown also concluded his career against Villanova with a
stellar performance. Brown scored 11 points but also had six rebounds, dealt
10 assists and committed only a single turnover (his performance was marred
only by making one out of six free throws). Freshman Josh Boone had a superb
performance, as he dominated the glass. Boone recorded a double-double with 11
points, 15 rebounds and also swatted six Villanova shots. Finally, Rashad
Anderson had 19 points,

Villanova fell behind early, as Connecticut dominated play for most of the
game. The Wildcats did make a spirited charge, early in the second half, but
the Huskies soon quelled the rally and coasted for the last ten minutes or so
with a comfortable, double-digit lead. It was never competitive beyond the
ten-minute mark.

In summary, Connecticut looked more like a national powerhouse, than the team
which was embroiled in a challenging struggle with Villanova two weeks ago at
the Wachovia Center. In that Feb. 28 contest, Villanova battled the Huskies
- WITH Okafor - right down to the final shot, when Okafor blocked a Foye drive
and arguably fouled him in doing so.

There are some games where you have a gut feeling about the ultimate outcome,
and this was one of those games. Connecticut began pulling away around the
midpoint of the first half, and it was then apparent that this was simply not
going to be the 'Cats' night. UConn was firing on all cylinders, and the 'Cats
were just not playing with the same level of passion that characterized the
games earlier this week. Friday night is when Cinderella traditionally hits
the wall at Madison Square Garden, having played three games while its opponent
has played only two. Villanova had a lot of history to overcome, even to
reach the final, let alone win the tournament and take the automatic bid. Since
1992, the league has instituted byes in the conference tournament, and no team
without one has ever won it. Only twice has one of those teams even reached
the final: Connecticut in 2000 and Pittsburgh in 2001.

After trading baskets in the early going, the Huskies held just a modest
16-13 lead at around the 12:30 mark, before starting their run. Villanova missed
nine straight shots during this span, while Connecticut embarked upon a 10-0
run. When coach Jay Wright finally called a long-overdue timeout at the 8:05
mark, the Huskies had widened the lead to 26-13 and were basically in control
for the rest of the game. Even at their high-water mark early in the second
half, Villanova would never get closer than five. With less than two minutes to
play, Villanova had just 19 points and trailed by 15, before Foye ripped off
five straight points to revive the offense. But Gordon nailed an NBA three
with 40 seconds left to boost the lead back to 13, 37-24, where it remained at

Villanova shot just 28% from the floor in the first half, a percentage the
Huskies neatly doubled at 56%: Connecticut had led the nation in field goal
percentage defense. And even without Okafor, they had a substantial 23-17
rebounding edge. The one thing Villanova did have going for it was an outstanding
turnover count of just three. Gordon had 13 points already, while Brown had 10;
Fraser had nine points (but three fouls) for 'Nova, while Allan Ray was
scoreless, having gone 0-6 from the floor.

The Huskies nearly broke the game open as soon as play resumed, zooming out
to an 18 point advantage at 42-24 and forcing Wright to use another timeout
just 1:20 into the second half. To their credit, the Wildcats fought their way
back into the game, scoring 10 straight. The run culminated with a Sumpter
putback of a Foye miss at the 15:59 mark and a Calhoun timeout to break the run
with the score 42-34.

Villanova's last gasp came when Sumpter scored four straight points to carve
the deficit to 48-43 with 12:09 to play. But Villanova could draw no closer
and soon lagged behind by double-digits, where they remained for the rest of
the game. Over the next five minutes, Connecticut went on a 17-4 run to make it
65-47. At the 7:01 mark, Charlie Villanueva suffered a high ankle sprain,
and play was halted while Villanueva had to be helped off the floor. But even
the delay had no effect on the Huskies' momentum. Their lead peaked at 20
after Anderson drained a three at the 5:41 mark, effectively ending the game -
Wright called another timeout, but it was way too late. The rest of the game was
garbage time. Andreas Bloch made his first appearance of the tournament
immediately afterwards, and converted a traditional three-point play almost as
soon as he took the floor. In a classy move by Wright, reserves Tom Grace and
Baker Dunleavy made a cameo appearance in the final minute. Less explicable was
Wright's decision to keep ordering fouls in a long-decided game. Despite
trailing by 16 points with three minutes to play, Villanova committed seven fouls
in the remaining 2:56, a ridiculous number for a situation in which they
never reduced the deficit to less than a dozen points.

Villanova's next contest, in the NIT, will take place some time next week.
The NIT takes some time after the NCAA Selection Show to determine its field,
and so the answer to Villanova's opponent and site will come some time on
Sunday night. Unlike the NCAA tournament, which uses strict, complex criteria in
creating its brackets, the NIT is not subtle (and can't really afford to be)
about its desire for attractive matchups to generate revenue, fans, and media
interest. With Villanova, Temple, and Drexel all probably in the field of 40,
the NIT would likely put all of them in the same bracket, in order to stage at
least one well-attended game in the Philadelphia area. In 2002, Villanova and
Temple were deliberately put on a collision course for the third round, which
did in fact take place, with Temple winning at the Apollo (now Liacouras
Center) in a close game.

Will Villanova get a home game? Probably, if past history is any indication.
Although the Wildcats usually don't draw well for NIT games, Villanova does
have a strong fan base. In 2002, the 'Cats received two home games before
"traveling" to Temple; last season, the Wildcats did not receive a home game due
to their status as a suspension-depleted team, a consequence of the
phone-access-code scandal (they arguably shouldn't have received a bid at all, under
those circumstances, and it would hardly seem to fair to give them a home game).
They made a quick first-round exit after a desultory loss to Siena in Albany,
New York.

Overall, this impressive New York performance goes a long way toward quelling
the anxieties 'Nova fans have been experiencing over the team's struggles
this season. Four days ago, the most realistic expectation for the conclusion to
this season was a six-game losing skid, a first-round BE tournament loss, and
no postseason bid at all. But in just three days, the 'Cats have turned that
picture completely inside out. Playing with increased confidence, the
Wildcats seem poised to win some more games and make some noise in the NIT, a
tournament the team will be participating in for the fifth straight season.

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