Saturday, March 20, 2004

'Nova Cuts Down Cavaliers, 73-63, in NIT

In a rare morning contest, tipping at 11 AM, Villanova cut down the Virginia Cavaliers, 73-63, at the Pavilion on Saturday. The triumph advanced Villanova to the quarterfinals of the NIT, where they will face a fellow Big East school: the winner of Monday night's NIT contest, in which West Virginia will travel to Rutgers. The victory, the 18th of the season and fourth in the last five games, assured the Wildcats of a winning season, as they are now two games over .500, with only one possible loss remaining. It was the first meeting between the two mid-Atlantic schools since the first round of the 1992 NIT, a tournament which Virginia ultimately won at Madison Square Garden. That game was historically significant as the final game at Villanova for former coaching legend Rollie Massimino.

It's hard to believe that just a week and a half ago 'Nova was limping into the BE tournament; the 18-16 Wildcats now have a fighting chance at winning the entire NIT. The same cannot be said of Virginia. The Cavaliers' season ended with another disappointment for coach Pete Gillen, the former Villanova assistant who has also been head coach at Xavier and Providence. Gillen has just completed six seasons at the helm with a 104-78 record, and has been the focus of criticism in Charlottesville, due to the team's failure to reach the NCAAs since the 2001 season. The Cavaliers, members of the soon-to-expand ACC, finished the season with a 18-13 record, with all 13 losses coming to a squad which ultimately reached either the NCAA or NIT. But the Cavaliers finished 6-10 in the rugged ACC and won only a single road game in conference play. As the school is constructing a new (and by definition, expensive) building to replace the old "U-Hall", Gillen has been coming under fire.

Both of these programs have now been regulars in the NIT. This is, as we all know, the fifth straight appearance for 'Nova, but also the third straight for the Cavaliers and fourth in the last five years. Virginia, which won the tournament not only in 1992 but also in 1980, has now lost in the second round of the NIT, for the second straight season. (The Cavaliers haven't advanced past the second round in any of those last four NITs.)

Randy Foye completed his third straight game breaking 20 points, by pouring in 21 and dealing six assists, but Allan Ray led all scorers with an outstanding game: 23 points and eight rebounds. Curtis Sumpter, despite being saddled with foul trouble, recorded a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Will Sheridan played 31 minutes due to the foul woes of Sumpter and Jason Fraser, and contributed significantly on defense: the freshman forward finished with four blocks and five rebounds. For Virginia, star Elton Brown was shut down completely in the first half, in which he scored no points, and by the time he got rolling after intermission it was basically too late for the Cavaliers. Brown finished with 13 points and six rebounds on just 4-12 shooting. Todd Billet ended his days at UVA on a sour note, going scoreless in 25 minutes of action. Ironically, the Cavaliers were primarily keyed by a pair of bench players: Gary Forbes, who led the team with 19 points on excellent 8-11 shooting, and Donte Minter, who had eight points and five boards in just 15 minutes of action. Virginia's bench outscored 'Nova's, 30-2. The game also featured a cameo by a Philadelphia player, Jason Cain, who played just two minutes.

Possibly due to the early tip-off, and the generally subdued tone of NIT competition, the game was a little sluggish on both sides. Virginia made just three of its first 12 shots. Gillen, who likes unorthodox defenses, opted for a triangle-and-two in the early going. The teams traded baskets for a while, with Sumpter a monster underneath for 'Nova; less than seven minutes into the game he already had seven boards. For UVA, Donte Minter came off the bench to light a spark for in the first half. The Wildcats were hurt when Sumpter and Fraser both sank into foul trouble in the early going. Sumpter picked up his second foul at the 12:12 mark, and the resulting free throw pulled UVA within 12-11. About two minutes later, Fraser committed his second, on Minter and very far from the basket. Minter would give the Cavaliers their last lead at 19-18, with two free throws at the 8:51 mark, due to a foul by Sheridan. It came after one of the most exciting plays of the day, a three from Mike Nardi which came just as the shot clock expired.

Villanova began to pull away a bit, though, after J.R. Reynolds converted an "and one," the result of a one-on-one breakaway against Nardi. That made it 24-22 'Nova, but the 'Cats would finish the half on a 13-6 run to take a 37-28 advantage into the locker room. The big blow was at the buzzer, when after racing up the floor, Ray threw a desperate fling from about 3-4 feet beyond the arc into the hoop.

The halftime stats looked pretty good for 'Nova. Ray and Foye had each reached double figures with 10 each, and the team had held the Cavaliers to just 33% shooting and had outrebounded them 21-15. Best of all, Elton Brown, the Cavaliers' best player, who ranked 9th in the ACC in both scoring and rebounding, had been shut out entirely. Minter, Forbes, and Reynolds all tied for the Virginia lead with eight points apiece.

The second half of the game was delayed shortly, while medical personnel attended to a physically ill individual at the Pavilion. After play resumed, 'Nova quickly inflated its lead to double-digits, starting with a 8-0 run, and the lead peaked at 45-28 less than four minutes into the second half. Villanova began putting it on cruise control, but then a series of mental mistakes and foolish fouls began letting UVA back into the game. Fraser picked up his third and fourth fouls on consecutive possessions at around the 12:18 mark; Sumpter had picked up his own fourth just under the 16:00 mark. With both of them out of the game, Virginia began pounding it inside and enjoying some success doing so. The most egregious sequence came around the eight minute mark, when VU committed a 35 second violation and Derrick Snowden then committed three fouls in less than 90 seconds. The Cavaliers began to chip into the lead, and Wright opted for a 30 second timeout at the 7:01 mark with the score standing at 52-44; UVA was on a 16-7 run.

Fraser returned to the game immediately after that timeout, delivering an "and-one" but then ingloriously fouling out on the next possession, on a bad foul. Thus far in the NIT, Fraser has unfortunately regressed badly after a stunning improvement over three games in New York. He was once again a nonfactor, logging just 13 minutes, scoring three points and grabbing six rebounds before fouling out. While those are good numbers if they were projected over 40 minutes, Villanova really doesn't need Fraser to rev the offensive engine. The three guards and Sumpter can provide the offensive firepower. What the Wildcats need is for Fraser to stay out of foul trouble, keep himself on the floor and intimidate enemy shots in the paint.

Wright was forced to keep Sumpter on the bench as well, and gambled that he could ride out the storm. And the gamble was successful; the 'Cats did so successfully, never letting the Cavaliers get closer than six until Sumpter returned around the four minute mark. The Cavaliers made their final gallant charge with just under two minutes to play, when Brown scored to cut it to four with 1:51 to go. Sumpter was tied up going to the hoop on the next possession, and while VU retained possession on the arrow the momentum was headed UVA's way. But Foye buried the Cavaliers on the foul line, making six in the final minute, and they never got any closer. Sumpter put the exclamation point on the contest by dunking with 7.1 seconds to play, rendering the final score 73-63 - an accurate reflection of Villanova's play. The key stat was rebounding. Despite the long absences of both Fraser and Sumpter (they combined to play just 35 minutes), the Wildcats STILL crushed the Cavaliers on the glass, 49-37. And it didn't help Virginia's cause that they made just one of ten three-point attempts (and the one they made didn't come until less than six minutes to play in the game).

Surprisingly, given the schools' relatively proximate locations (just a six hour drive apart) and status as major conference powers, they haven't faced each other all that often. Today was just the sixth meeting ever, and two of those games have now been in the NIT and thus not voluntarily scheduled. The teams didn't meet until 1981, and haven't met in the regular season since December 1989. Villanova is now 2-4 all-time against the Cavaliers.

This year's Wildcats, Wright's third team, have now matched the mark set by his first team in 2001-02 for NIT success, when the Wildcats reached the quarterfinals before falling at Temple. Last season's NIT ended abruptly at Siena, when a skeleton team, reduced by suspensions, was blown out. It also sets a positive tone for next season, in that this season will now officially go into the record books as a winning campaign, unlike last year, which thudded to a 15-16 mark.

According to the NIT's official bracket, the quarterfinal game between Villanova and the Rutgers/West Virginia winner will take place on Wednesday, March 24, at 7 PM. No site has been officially announced. If one had to bet, it seems more likely that Villanova's quarterfinal opponent will be RU, given that in the teams' only regular season meeting at the RAC, the Scarlet Knights won by 21. But of course, you never know. After all, Villanova was embarrassed by Providence on the Pavilion floor earlier this season but ousted the Friars in the Big East tournament. Either way, Wright's squad will have the advantage of rest and a couple of extra days to prepare, as they await the outcome of Monday's game.

No comments: