Sunday, March 07, 2004

Villanova Scores Just 45 in Loss at #6 Pittsburgh

The 45 points were a season-low for Villanova; the last time the Wildcats scored
so few points were in last year's Big East tournament against Georgetown, in a
46-41 loss. Villanova jumped out to a shocking 17-3 lead in the early going,
but the Panthers roared back on Pitt's Senior Day. Pitt won the rest of the
game by an equally astonishing 56-28 margin - and three of those VU points
came on Randy Foye's meaningless triple at the buzzer. Not that it was
reasonable to expect a victory - Pitt has only one loss at the Petersen Events Center
in its two-plus years of existence. Until falling to Syracuse last week, the
Panthers had won 40 straight there. And 'Nova has just helped Pitt begin a new

The loss fixed 'Nova as the #11 seed (that's REALLY painful to write) out of
the 12 Big East tournament qualifiers (two of the 14 conference members don't
qualify for the trip to Madison Square Garden). Although Villanova will play
at 9 PM (in reality, more like 9:30 PM) in Wednesday's final contest, its
first-round Big East tournament opponent has yet to be conclusively determined.
It will be the #6 seed, either Seton Hall or Notre Dame, depending on other
games throughout the weekend. Unfortunately for Villanova, both of those teams
rest precariously on the NCAA bubble and desperately need a strong Big East
tournament showing to impress the Selection Committee. If the 'Cats survive
Wednesday, they would move on to face #3 seed Providence in Thursday's
quarterfinal game.

It's extremely unlikely, although theoretically possible, for Villanova to
win the Big East tournament. Since the byes for the top seeds (of varying
were created, following the entrance of Miami as the tenth member in
1991-92, no team which lacked a bye has EVER won the tournament. (Granted, the
primary reason for that, is the best teams are the ones which receive the byes, but
the bye is a huge advantage, in a tournament where you have to play three or
four days in a row).

Villanova finished its regular season at 6-10 Big East, 14-15 overall. It
wasn't that long ago - at the close of January - that they harbored notions of
knocking off then-#3 St. Joseph's. As the calendar changed to February, the
Wildcats were sitting at a respectable 12-7 overall, 4-3 Big East and were on
the NCAA bubble. 'Nova has won only two games since then. This afternoon's
loss was Villanova's fifth straight and seventh in their last eight games.

For #6 Pittsburgh, in contrast, the future seems glorious. With budding
superstars like Chris Taft, a sparkling new building, state-school money and
plenty of recent success, things can only get better. Today, the Panthers set a
school record for victories with 27, as well as bidding farewell to the
winningest class in school history. A laughingstock and BE doormat as recently as
five years ago, the Panthers guaranteed themselves the #1 seed in the BET as well
as least a share of the BE regular-season championship for the third straight
season. Pitt finished its regular season at 13-3 Big East, 27-3 overall -
the third straight 13-3 mark in league play for the Panthers. Connecticut,
which won three straight regular-season titles from 1994-96, is the only other BE
school to match Pitt's mark of winning or sharing the league title three
straight years. And Pitt did it this year despite having to play probably the
league's most difficult schedule, facing Syracuse and Connecticut twice, while
having to travel to Providence and Seton Hall.

Villanova now clings to a 27-24 advantage all-time over Pittsburgh, but that
does not appear likely to survive the next few seasons. Pittsburgh has now
won the last three and four of the last five. (Worth noting: in 51 games
against Pitt, today's 45 points matched the all-time low for 'Nova offense against
the Panthers, equaled only by the 45 scored in a 47-45 loss on Feb. 11, 1984- a
game which featured no shot clock OR three-point shot.) 'Nova was hoping for
a repeat of last year's finest hour, the 56-54 miraculous, near-upset at the
then-First Union Center. With the squad decimated and distracted by the
newly-broken phone access code scandal, a skeleton Wildcat team played stallball,
and as a result, nearly pulled off a shocking upset of Pittsburgh in front of a
CBS audience.

It seemed, at least in the beginning, that Villanova might have yet another
miracle in them. Last year's final regular-season game was also against a
highly-ranked Pitt team, on national TV - who knows? And this season, 'Nova would
actually have the right to use ALL the players against Pitt....

Allan Ray was the only Wildcat to have a standout performance. The team's
most consistent weapon, Ray poured in 24 of 'Nova's 45 points (well more than
half) and was the only factor even keeping 'Nova in the game during the
disastrous second half. Taft played the same role for Pitt. Scoring eight straight
points after Pitt had fallen behind 17-3, the freshman - likely to be named BE
Rookie of the Year - finished with a double-double: 16 points and 11 rebounds.
However, Ray's prodigious scoring must be balanced by the fact that he shot
only 8-23 from the floor. Chevon Troutman actually led Pitt in scoring with
17 points and added seven boards, and Carl Krauser reached double figures with
11 points, despite shooting an anemic 1-9 from the floor - he went 9-10 from
the line.

Jason Fraser, who had been showing steady improvement as he recovered from
his injuries, badly regressed in this game. Playing just 11 ineffective minutes
due to foul trouble, he scored just two points while finishing with four
fouls (although he did have four rebounds). Foye shot 2-9 from the floor, with
one basket coming when the game had been decided. Curtis Sumpter logged 31
minutes but finished with just two points. With Fraser on the bench, Chris
Charles saw some increased playing time but struggled with fouls as well, finishing
with four fouls in 18 minutes.

As depressing as the context was, I have to say that the game itself WAS
quite entertaining and unpredictable. The Wildcats cowed the sellout crowd at the
Petersen Events Center into silence by opening up a 17-3 lead DEEP into the
first half. When Mike Nardi drained a three at the 8:34 mark, pushing the lead
to 14 - that was the deepest deficit that Pitt had confronted - at any point,
during the entire SEASON. However, despite such unfamiliarity with playing
from behind, Pitt has successfully found its way out of the woods before.
Earlier this season, it trailed at Notre Dame by 13 - and won. At Georgetown, by
13, and won. And against William and Mary, by 10 - and won.

Still, 'Nova had totally dominated play up until that point. When the
under-eight timeout was whistled at 7:57, there had been three TV timeouts and an
equal number of Pitt points. When your scoring output corresponds to the number
of media timeouts, you're usually in big trouble. Pitt had missed 11 of its
first 12 shots, while Villanova went 6-16 from the floor. And coming out of
the under-eight timeout, Pitt was forced to call timeout - its third of the
game just 12 minutes in - to avoid a five-second call. The team resembled the
inept Panthers of the late '90s, far more than it did a national powerhouse and
contender for a top NCAA seed.

When Taft finally scored to cut the deficit to 17-5, the crowd cheered
derisively, as it marked the first Pitt field goal in about ten minutes. But he
didn't stop there. In less than three minutes, Taft singlehandedly brought the
Panthers back into the game, scoring eight straight points. The Wildcats,
which had been playing with confidence - if not technical precision - up until
that point, began to crumble, scoring just five points in the last eight minutes.
That span included two 35 second violations on consecutive possessions. The
second of these was particularly egregious, which came after the ball was
tipped out of bounds with one second left on the clock. Ray accepted the
inbounds pass and seemingly indifferent to the shot clock, did a pump fake and put
the ball on the floor before the buzzer sounded. Villanova would commit 18
turnovers to Pitt's seven, a figure Pitt exploited to Villanova's detriment: Pitt
scored 23 of 59 points off turnovers, compared to Villanova's ten.

Nonetheless, Villanova managed to protect a 22-17 lead by intermission.
Holding the #6 team to 17 points on the road has to be considered a major
accomplishment. Despite the flurry at the end, 'Nova had held Pitt to just 7-24
shooting (29%) and outrebounded Pitt - a strong rebounding team - 18-12. Seven
Wildcats had scored; Taft had eight of Pitt's 17 points. But Pitt had been down
this road before; they already had four wins when they had been held to 50-59
points. So it was far from over.

This fact was clearly illustrated as soon as play resumed, when Pitt grabbed
control of the game and Villanova sank into the collective fog which has so
often clouded their play this year. On the opening possession of the second
half, Ray scored to make it 24-17. Villanova wouldn't score again until the
13:08 mark, on a technical foul. In the meantime, Pitt embarked on a 16-0 run.
They had once trailed 17-3 but were soon up 33-24 - a 30-7 advantage over a 15
minute span, from the eight minute mark of the first half to the 13 minute
mark of the second.

Julius Page was hit with a technical, probably for excessive celebration when
Jay Wright called timeout to halt the run at the 13:08 mark. The technical
seemed to turn things around for 'Nova, as unusual a benefit of a timeout as
has ever been seen. Ray began hitting, finally getting 'Nova back to within
37-36, as he had all 12 of 'Nova's second half points. Nardi tied it at 38, with
a free throw at the 8:12 mark and the teams seemed ready for a dogfight down
the stretch.

Unfortunately, Villanova fell back into its funk and let Pitt dominate play
for the final eight minutes. The 'Cats scored just four points the entire rest
of the game, excluding Foye's final three, which came at the buzzer when the
'Cats were already down by 17. The key play was, ironically, another
technical, this one on Coach Wright. Protesting an out-of-bounds call, he was teed
up, and it sparked a Pitt rally - a 14-0 run which put the game out of reach and
demonstrated why they are the #6 team in America and a legitimate national
championship contender. The technical came at 6:59; 'Nova didn't score ANY
points until the 1:36 mark, when Ray hit a three, but the game was already
hopelessly lost at that point. The triple cut it to 51-40, and the game had been
over for a long time at that point.

Pitt shot free throws on four consecutive possessions, as Wright insisted on
ordering fouls in an already decided game, and the lead swelled to 58-40 at
one point. The only genuinely interesting moment came with 39 seconds to go,
when first-year Pitt coach Jamie Dixon motioned to Toree Morris to return to the
game. Morris, a one-time starter who lost that role this season, started the
game due to Senior Day but came out almost immediately. The crowd had been
chanting his name, and given that the outcome had been a foregone conclusion
for a while, it was odd that Morris hadn't been put back in the game.

Well, Morris refused to go in, deciding to show up Dixon in front of
thousands of people. In the continuing struggle of power between college coaches and
college players, each party holds the upper hand at various stages - but the
coach unquestionably holds the supreme power: what Dick Vitale describes as
"PT, baby!" The almighty minutes. Whatever antics might go on off the court,
players go in the game when told, and come out of the game when told. Public
refusal to do so is considered an act of rebellion against Coach by the player,
and usually carries severe, if unofficial, consequences for the player. Not
that Morris cares, tremendously, at this point. It's a coach who didn't
recruit him - Dixon's predecessor and former superior, Ben Howland, is scuffling at
UCLA right now in his first season. And Morris is a senior, anyway, and
probably felt that it was a good chance to strike back at Dixon for whatever
slights Morris has felt he's suffered this season.

As noted above, Foye hit a meaningless three at the buzzer, his first basket
of the second half, to make the final a bit more respectable at 45.

It seems ludicrous, when 'Nova was sitting on the NCAA bubble at 12-7, to
wonder about qualifying for the NIT - but the bid is in serious trouble. The NIT
officially requires participants to be at least. 500, but they have been
known to quietly take major-conference teams IF their conference tournament loss
drops them below .500 for the year (a strained rationalization, to be sure, but
it increases the money into NIT coffers). Villanova currently sits at 14-15.
Even to have a SHOT at NIT boundless compassion, and sneak in at one game
under .500, 'Nova would have to win the first game against Seton Hall or Notre
Dame, when those teams have everything to play for. Nearby Seton Hall would
also probably enjoy some fan support in the building. To ASSURE themselves of
reaching .500, they'd have to beat Providence, too, after the Friars had come
off a bye. Villanova hasn't failed to reach postseason play since 1998, when a
rebuilding team went 12-17, but it looks more likely than not that the streak
- and the four-year NIT streak as well - is coming to an end.

But that's all 'Nova fans have left at this point to hope for. The Wildcats
have demonstrated this season that they can contend with anyone in the nation,
and they simply have to come to New York on Wednesday, turn the ball over
less than 15 times and play solid defense. If they can do that, they'll have a
shot at getting that NIT bid and continuing the season, and building for the

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