Thursday, March 18, 2004

Wildcats Slay Dragons, 85-70, in NIT Opener

Villanova continued its surprising late-season renaissance with a St. Patrick's Day victory, as the Wildcats slew the Drexel Dragons at the Pavilion, 85-70, in the NIT opener for both teams. Villanova has now won all 17 games ever played against its West Philadelphia neighbor, but it was only the second game between the schools since 1990. At Villanova, coach Jay Wright is now 2-0 against the school where he was once an assistant, and 10-9 including his days at Hofstra. It was a deceptively lopsided final score; the Wildcats had to overcome a sluggish start, where they fell behind by as many as ten points early in the second half. They eventually buried the Dragons under a mountain of free throws, attempting 30 in the second half alone, as they won the second half by a resounding 52-31 margin. On Saturday, Villanova will host Virginia for an equally rare morning game (11 AM) intended by ESPN as an appetizer for NCAA action later that afternoon. The victory also boosted Villanova's record to 17-16, ensuring that the squad will finish with at least a .500 record this season, something which looked like a fairly bleak prospect as recently as last week.

St. Patrick's Day has not been kind to Villanova in recent years. The two most notorious defeats of the mid-90s, the early NCAA losses as a #3 seed to Old Dominion and Louisville, both took place on that day, in consecutive years. It's quite ironic, for a school founded by Irish Catholics (as any look at the campus building names, or cemetery, will quickly confirm) to have such dismal luck on that day. But until 1995, 'Nova's St. Patrick's Day history had been OK. The two bright moments were beating Brown in the first-ever NCAAs in 1939, and upsetting #1 seed Michigan in the second round of the NCAAs in 1985, en route to the national title. All-time, Villanova is just 5-6, though, with all of the games taking place in the postseason. In 1978, a team featuring current broadcaster Whitey Rigsby beat Bobby Knight's Indiana in the NCAAs; in 1994, Villanova beat Canisius en route to the NIT title. But 'Nova has lost NIT games to St. Bonaventure (1977), NYU (yes, NYU- 1966), and in the NCAAs to ODU, Louisville, North Carolina (1991) and Billy Packer's Wake Forest team in 1962. (Packer has recently been making news for other reasons.)

Randy Foye and Allan Ray each had 20 points, while Curtis Sumpter had a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, for Villanova. Sean Brooks had a great night for Drexel, scoring a career-high 24 points and dominating play in the first half, when he scored 15 points; in the second half, foul trouble and leg cramps restricted his effectiveness and helped 'Nova pull away. Tim Whitworth had 14 points in his final game at Drexel, while Phil Goss and Jeremiah King each chipped in a dozen.

With the victory, Villanova's record now stands at 17-16 and have now won three of their last four. The loss ended Drexel's season at 18-11, with three straight defeats. But the Dragons appeared in their second consecutive NIT, a tremendous boost for their program. The Dragons were thought to have a fighting chance at the CAA's automatic bid, but were upset in their conference tournament opener by UNC-Wilmington. But Drexel's future looks to get brighter. The CAA is a step up from the America East, their former conference, and in just three seasons at the helm, coach James "Bruiser" Flint has done wonders to rehabilitate his stock, after four rocky seasons at Massachusetts. His tenure at Massachusetts, prior to being replaced by Villanova coach Steve Lappas, was notable only for mounting losses, dwindling Mullins Center attendance, and Flint's consistent appearances on the lists of the "best-dressed coaches in Division I". (Ironically, Lappas has struggled in Amherst far more than Flint had, narrowly surviving an ill-concealed drive to replace him after three disastrous seasons.)

Tonight, Flint may very well have coached his last game at Drexel. With 15 vacancies already in Division I, Flint's name has circulated widely as a candidate for higher-profile positions, including even the new Big East vacancy at Georgetown. Although I'd be pretty surprised if that happened - given Flint's struggles at UMass - Georgetown is in a real cash crunch right now, and Flint could probably be had, relatively cheap. Georgetown's financial woes are further aggravated by the need to buy out Esherick's contract, inexplicably extended through 2009, after last season. As a result, Georgetown isn't in a position to outbid other programs for the "hot" names rising on the coaching carousel, such as Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez. Bruiser's from the Northeast, he's young, personable, and doesn't have any ties with the previous John Thompson/Craig Esherick regime, which might be a plus in the current climate. But even if Flint stays in University City, his future looks pretty bright. Senior Tim Whitworth is the only player Drexel loses from a 18-11 squad, in a conference which may even attract a second NCAA bid next season.

With tonight's victory, the Wildcats have already surpassed last year's NIT phone-access-code suspension-induced disaster, which was mercifully ended in a rout at Siena in the opening round (in the same Albany, NY Pepsi Center where ODU broke 'Nova's hearts in 1995 in triple overtime, a loss which still haunts the program). In 2002, Wright's first season at the helm, Villanova made a nice NIT run, winning two Pavilion games prior to being stopped by John Chaney's Temple team in the quarterfinals.

The key advantage that Drexel enjoyed in this contest was that the game meant far more to them and their fans (many of whom made the trip out to the Main Line) than it did to Villanova. For Drexel, a NIT appearance is a substantial accomplishment; Villanova fans may fret about five consecutive NITs, but at Drexel that would be considered a real blessing. And they played like it; Drexel led by six at halftime but easily could have led by more, having held the lead for virtually the entire half.

Brooks was a monster inside, scoring 15 points. Unfortunately, Jason Fraser regressed from his outstanding performance in New York, which were among the best games of his career. Fraser was dominated by Brooks inside, and quickly sank into foul trouble. Fraser picked up his second foul guarding Brooks at the 14:21 mark and went to the bench; he played just six minutes in the first half and was basically a non-factor. Brooks made one of two free throws to give Drexel a surprising, early 11-4 lead. While Villanova fought back consistently, a DEEP three by Goss (one of his four triples in the game) gave Drexel a 25-18 lead and took back the momentum; Drexel extended the lead to 33-23 after a three by Whitworth with around four minutes to play. The Dragons took a 39-33 lead into the locker room and were brimming with confidence; they had shot 50% from the floor and 45% from beyond the arc, although just four players had all their points. Only Villanova's outstanding foul shooting (11-12 by halftime) was keeping them in the game.

After play resumed, Villanova was still scuffling. Drexel pushed the lead back to ten after a particularly ugly sequence: Fraser committed his third foul, Sumpter missed a dunk, and Fraser then turned the ball over stepping over the end line. When Kenell Sanchez hit a bucket to give Drexel a 45-35 lead with 16:46 to play, Wright called timeout to discuss the situation. It was tough to see why a team that looked so great in New York had deteriorated so sharply. But it was Drexel's last basket for quite some time.

Fortunately, Villanova was spared the fate of having the season end at below .500, with a first-round NIT loss on its home floor. After that low point, the Dragons' fire was largely extinguished in the early minutes of the second half. The chief cause was a remarkably large number of whistles; Drexel fell into the double-bonus less than six minutes into the second half and began racking up fouls on most of their key players. Brooks, who had no fouls in the first half, committed THREE in a two-minute span. Chaz Crawford, their only other center, fouled out with over 14 minutes to go.

In a five minute span, Villanova embarked on a fitful 18-0 run (including eight straight from Ray) to transform the 45-35 disadvantage into a 53-45 lead. It might have been one of the least exciting 18-0 runs in Villanova history, given that most of it was at the foul line, with the prominent exception of a Ray steal-and-dunk. It was impossible for the game to flow smoothly due to the frequency of the whistles. It's highly unusual, obviously, for one team to be in the double bonus with over 14 minutes to play, and the number of free throws reflected that fact. Villanova shot 42 free throws in the contest, and turned in an outstanding performance at the line, making 35 of them (over 83%). And if you take out Fraser's 1-6 from the line, the rest of the team went a near-perfect 34-36. In contrast, Drexel went 16-23 from the stripe. Angered by the disparity, Flint was whistled for a technical, and it was unwise to put 'Nova on the line, as Ray made both of them, of course. Brooks was hampered both by foul trouble and leg cramps, and without him, Drexel just couldn't compete underneath. The Dragons are "munchkins," to use Flint's favorite term when he has to face major-conference competition, and with their best post player struggling they had no shot at an upset. Brooks didn't score for the first eight minutes of the second half, and at that point Villanova had already taken control of the game.

Villanova had the momentum, momentum disproportionate to the actual lead, which never exceeded 11 points until garbage time. The Dragons actually got the lead down to as low as 71-66 around the four minute mark, but Villanova's stellar free-throw shooting saved the day. Every time the Wildcats went to the line, they dropped, which is a real morale killer for the team trying to rally.

Eventually, Drexel collapsed and the Wildcats widened the margin, winning the final four minutes, 14-4.

The final numbers noted that Villanova killed Drexel on the glass, winning the rebounding battle by 18. One reason was a standout game from Will Sheridan, who pulled in five boards in just 18 minutes, while scoring 11 points. The Wildcats also turned the ball over just 12 times. On Saturday, Villanova will face former Villanova assistant Pete Gillen's Cavaliers for the first time since the 1992 NIT. Gillen, a one-time candidate for the head coaching position here, is himself is on the hot seat after several lackluster seasons at UVA, and could unquestionably use a strong NIT run to solidify his position.

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