Tuesday, December 28, 2004

A Blue Christmas for Blue Raiders, As Villanova Tops East Tennessee State At Pavilion, 81-62

Maybe it was too much holiday eggnog. Or turkey. Or even figgy pudding.

Whatever the cause, the Wildcats slept-walked through the first few minutes of their contest with Middle Tennessee State, falling behind 13-4, and the Wildcats led at halftime by just two. They seemed on the verge of nearly delivering the Blue Raiders a belated Christmas gift - and ironically, MTSU did dress a player with the apt name of Keith Christmas.

Fortunately, the Wildcats recovered from their early post-holiday hangover. After the 13-4 deficit, they hit their Southern guests with a quite inhospitable 18-2 run, taking the lead. MTSU stayed close, and 'Nova led at the half by just two. But a strong run to open the second half ended the first-half suspense. Ultimately, Villanova sent the Blue Raiders packing without plunder - or holiday cheer - shrugging off the early torpor with an 81-62 victory. In defiance of the season of giving, the Wildcats were in fact quite stingy. 'Nova gave up just 25 points in the second half - and in a shocking development, yielded just nine turnovers for the game.

Villanova won its fifth straight contest, improving to 6-1 overall; MTSU fell to 7-4 overall, in the first-ever meeting between the schools. Curtis Sumpter was once again awesome, rocketing to a 26 point performance on lethal 10-13 shooting. He also provided five rebounds and didn't commit a single turnover. Other noteworthy contributions came from Allan Ray (15 points) and Randy Foye (14 points). For MTSU, hometown favorite Michael Cuffee - playing in front of his family and friends - led the way with 17 points and six boards in logging 39 minutes. It was Cuffee's 16th straight game reaching double figures, and the 17 points tied a season high. Mike Dean added 15 points for the Blue Raiders.

A three from Nardi gave 'Nova its first lead at 14-13. The Wildcats forced a shot clock violation on the next possession, and Foye followed up with another three to make it 17-13, completing a 13-0 Villanova run. It culminated in an 18-2 run for 'Nova, keyed by a pressure defense that led to some points in transition, and 'Nova had quickly transformed a 13-4 deficit into a 22-15 advantage. The Wildcats would ultimately score 23 points off turnovers and eight fastbreak points.

But at the half, Villanova led by just two, 39-37, as MTSU had hung around for the entire first half. However, Coach Wright made some adjustments at intermission, and 'Nova roared out in the second half, clamping down on defense. The Blue Raiders managed just two points in over seven minutes after play resumed, as a tight contest had degenerated into a rout. 'Nova now led 53-39, after an "and-one" converted by Sumpter, and the Wildcats were not threatened afterward. MTSU never drew closer than eight during the remainder of the contest and trailed most of it by double digits.

Villanova shot an impressive 53% from the floor overall and a torrid 50% from three-point range. The usual trademark defense deteriorated, unfortunately, for the second straight game; MTSU shot well (43%, both overall and from beyond the arc) and Villanova won the battle of the glass by only a small margin.

Putting MTSU on the December schedule is a bit of a change of pace for 'Nova. MTSU isn't geographically close by, located in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Moreover, the Blue Raiders are both sufficiently dangerous (the Blue Raiders are the favorite to win one division of the Sun Belt Conference) and insufficiently RPI-potent to warrant inclusion on the schedule. Long-time members of the Ohio Valley Conference before switching to the Sun Belt, MTSU has received only one at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in school history (and the only one in the history of the OVC). Their deepest-ever postseason run was some modest NIT success in 1988, when a Dana Barros-led Boston College team stopped them one game short of the Madison Square Garden trip, after two NIT victories.

The MTSU Blue Raiders entered the game with a record of 7-3. The Blue Raiders had padded their record with some extraordinarily weak competition, scheduling a string of home games against Lambuth University, Belmont, Tennessee Wesleyan, Tennessee State, and Mississippi Valley State, all of which they won. In an unusual scheduling decision, they actually played MVSU twice in the early going, losing on the road and then winning the rematch on their home floor, the Murphy Center. They also had a loss to Rice. But by going 5-2 to start the season, it was the team's best start since 1997. The Blue Raiders had just come off competing in the San Juan Shootout, where they sandwiched a five-point loss to Auburn with a topping of Toledo and an overtime victory over Delaware.

They are helmed by Kermit Davis, who was at one point the youngest head coach in Division I, when he was named head coach at Idaho in 1987, when he was just 28. (He was a junior college head coach at 24.)

At least one Blue Raider was happy about the lengthy trip: senior Michael Cuffee, a native of Philadelphia. Cuffee averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds in his senior year at the Public League's Simon Gratz High.

In a small lineup shuffle, coach Jay Wright opted to bench Mike Nardi from the point guard spot, and insert Marcus Austin as the starting center. Wright is continuing to search for answers in the post. Chris Charles hadn't distinguished himself in the wake of Jason Fraser's injury revival, and so perhaps Austin was worth a look. Alas, the Big Dog was surprisingly silent in taking advantage of the opportunity, logging 15 minutes and failing to pull down a single rebound, finishing with just two points and a blocked shot. It seems clear that Fraser is going to have to get and remain healthy for Villanova to count on reliable offensive production from the five spot.

Fortunately, there was some good news on the Fraser front. The junior center came off the bench for 22 minutes, a remarkable coincidence for a player who had logged precisely 22 minutes in 'each of Nova's THREE previous games. And he not only played - he was awesome, actually. Despite some foul trouble, Fraser delivered nine points, three blocks and seven boards.

Also, Nardi seemed to take his absence from the starting lineup in stride. The struggling sophomore point guard came off the bench to play 33 minutes, scoring eight points, dealing three assists and most importantly, playing vigorous defense and helping to force some MTSU turnovers. He also helped squelch MTSU's mini-rally in the second half by hitting back-to-back threes.

Villanova resumes City Series action with a New Year's Eve matinee against ancient rival Penn at the Pavilion at 4:00 PM later this week. The Quakers will be coming off a stunning 23-day layoff; Penn hasn't seen action since falling 52-51 at Temple on December 8. But the Quakers have won two of the last three against 'Nova, and are making their first 21st-century visit to the Pavilion - where the Quakers have never won. The Wildcats own a victory over La Salle and a heartbreaking loss to Temple thus far in Big Five action, and can stay in the hunt for a share of the city title with a victory. Their final City Series game comes against St. Joseph's at the Palestra in February.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Wildcats Send Great Danes to Doghouse, Defeating Albany, 86-72, In the Midst of the Christmas Season

Villanova had some trouble in sending the Albany Great Danes to the doghouse on Wednesday night, 86-72, at the Pavilion. However, the Wildcats ultimately sent the Main Line crowd back scurrying to the King of Prussia Mall to finish Christmas shopping, secure in the knowledge that 'Nova is slowly - but surely - priming up for the Big East campaign.

Three Wildcats had tremendous performances. Curtis Sumpter finished with 23 points and nine rebounds on 8-12 shooting. Randy Foye also registered 23 points, on 8-15 shooting, including 4-8 from beyond the arc. Finally, best of all, Allan Ray rocked the Pavilion for 26 points to join the 1,000 point club. For Albany, Jamar Wilson finished with 19 points to lead the way, Lucious Jordan contributed 16 points, and freshman Brent Wilson scored 15 points, including five triples.

Villanova displayed a remarkable holiday spirit to their guests from Albany, surrendering an appalling 72 points. That may not sound so bad in absolute terms, but when you take into consideration that the Wildcats entered the game as the most miserly Scrooges in the nation, ranked first nationally in both points allowed and field goal percentage defense - well, that's disappointing. Moreover, the Wildcats had yet to allow more than 53 points in a game. How did it happen? Basically, unconscious outside shooting from Albany. The Great Danes growled their way to a shocking 52% from three point range and an impressive 54% overall. It was bound to happen, sooner or later.

Albany hung around a lot longer than it should have. After Villanova zoomed out to a 28-18 first-half lead, the Great Danes pulled to just 33-32 at intermission. Villanova once again appeared to have the game in hand, after Ray canned a three roughly midway through the second half to give 'Nova a 68-50 lead. However, the Great Danes were as close as 73-68 with less than five minutes to play, after Wilson made yet another three-pointer. Fortunately, the 'Cats were able to repel the Great Danes' charge, winning by double-digits - Villanova won the rest of the game 13-4.

Villanova improved to 5-1 overall, winning its fourth straight game. The Wildcats haven't lost since December 4, to Temple at the Palestra. Albany fell to 4-4 overall. The Great Danes are currently engaged in a highly arduous road trip, as Albany just played its seventh road game (out of eight total). The trip will also continue with (gulp) a visit to the Carrier Dome on Tuesday.

While Albany was only slightly better competition than the UMBC team Villanova crushed in the season opener, the Great Danes still provided some drama as to the outcome. The Retrievers were picked to finish 10th in the ten-school America East conference, while Albany was a marginally better 8th. (Vermont, the alma mater of former Villanova mentor Rollie Massimino, was favored to finish first.) Albany is coming off a calamitous season in which the Great Danes went 5-23 overall, 3-15 America East, finishing dead last. By Albany standards, they have had a decent season, losing their only home game against Long Island in overtime. Moreover, the Great Danes have BLOWOUT victories at Sacred Heart, Siena (its crosstown opponent), and Army, winning each by 18 points or more, as well as a 12 point victory at Hartford.

This was the first-ever meeting between the schools, which was not surprising in light of the fact that the Great Danes have only competed in Division I, since the 1999-2000 season. Entering the game, Albany had posted a not unimpressive 4-16 record against schools currently in the Big East (although not necessarily as Big East members). However, since Albany joined Division I in the 21st century, the Great Danes have challenged Big East opponents on four prior occasions, three of them against Syracuse. They have never come closer than 19 points in any of them. The best showing they have managed was a 79-60 loss, at the RAC to Rutgers on Valentine's Day, 2000. However, the Great Danes were obviously hopelessly outgunned and on the road in three of those four games. Syracuse actually came to the Pepsi Arena to play Albany in 2001, winning 91-65; it was probably a 3-for-1 deal since Albany has gone to the Carrier Dome twice and will be there again next week. It seems possible, based on tonight, that the Great Danes might have more success against the Orangemen than in the past. Albany is, quite simply, a work in progress. The head coach, Will Brown, is just 33 and already in his fourth season at the helm.

Worth noting: Will Sheridan and Great Dane freshman Joe Dyson were high school teammates at Delaware's Sanford School; Great Danes tri-captain Christopher Wyatt is from the Philadelphia area; he played at Montgomery County's Hatboro-Horsham High.

Ray Watch: The junior guard finally attained the millenial milestone, exploding for 26 points on 10-16 shooting. He is the first Wildcat to join the club since Ricky Wright.

The Wildcats continue this long homestand, when MTSU arrives at the Pavilion right after Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Villanova Fells Fordham, 68-47, at Pavilion

The Wildcats breezed to a wholly expected, but still reasonably well-played, victory over a hapless, overmatched Fordham Rams squad, 68-47, Tuesday night at the Pavilion. Curtis Sumpter roared for a season-high 20 points - plus 11 boards - to lead the Wildcats' efforts. Randy Foye had a particularly strong game, scoring 17 points, grabbing nine rebounds, dishing four assists and picking up three steals in 34 minutes of action. Jason Fraser came off the bench once again and delivered a powerful performance, scoring 12 points and collecting seven rebounds in just 22 minutes of action. For Fordham, Sebastian Greene was the only player to reach double figures, registering 11 points.

Villanova continued to play relentless defense this season, as Fordham became the third opponent this year to score fewer than 50 points. The Rams were held to just 31% shooting, on 16-51 from the floor, and 21% from beyond the arc on 3-14 shooting.

Fordham was simply never in this game. The Rams were able to muster only 16 points by halftime, trailing by 13, and it was quite obvious that they were not going to return to the Big Apple with a victory. The Wildcats maintained a comfortable double-digit lead throughout the second half and just put it on cruise control. Overall, Villanova shot well from beyond the arc, nailing 5 of 11 shots (45.5%) and also thumped the Rams on the glass, 41-27.

Villanova upped its record to 4-1 overall, while Fordham dropped to 3-4 overall. It was Villanova's third straight game against Atlantic 10 competition: the Wildcats fell to Temple on December 4, before beating another, La Salle, on Saturday - both opponents are Atlantic 10 members. (Villanova will also face defending regular-season champion St. Joseph's at the Palestra in February).

Surprisingly, it was the first meeting of the two geographically close, academically-oriented Catholic schools in over 33 years - since the second round of the 1971 NCAA tournament, when 'Nova won a 85-75 shootout (a lot of points in that pre-shot clock, pre-three-point shot era). Fordham was a powerhouse then; the team was coached by Digger Phelps (now an ESPN analyst) and completed the season with a 26-3 record. The Wildcats would go on to lose to powerful UCLA in the national title game that year. It was also the first scheduled, regular-season meeting since December 1961, when Villanova won 69-48 at Fordham. By winning tonight, Villanova increased its small lead in the all-time series with Fordham to 11-8; the Rams' last victory over the Wildcats came in 1957. Tonight also marked Fordham's first visit to the Main Line campus since 1949 (Villanova hosted them six times at the Palestra between 1949 and 1960.

Ray Watch: The junior guard entered the game just 26 points away from reaching 1,000 points in his Main Line career. Unfortunately, he was constrained by foul trouble. Ray played just 22 minutes, and finished with just five points on 2-4 shooting. He has an outside chance of attaining the milestone on December 22 against Albany, but it seems more likely that it will have to wait until the December 27 contest against Middle Tennessee State. He'll be the first Wildcat to do so, since Ricky Wright reached it in 2002-03. He will be the 46th Wildcat to clear the plateau.

Fraser Watch: On Saturday, the junior center also passed Ricky Wright (79 blocks) for ninth place on the all-time blocks list, and entered the game with 80, needing two blocks to tie Rafal Bigus for eighth place at 82. He passed Biggie easily, swatting four Fordham shots.

Fordham entered the game with a record of 3-3 - which is rather impressive for a program coming off a 6-22 season- and that dismal record was - incredibly - a four-game IMPROVEMENT over their 2002-03 record of 2-26 (not a misprint). They have had three double-digit losses, to Manhattan, Boston University and Holy Cross, none of whom would be described as powers and all of whom belong to lower-tier conferences. But you have to crawl before you can walk when you're rebuilding from 2-26 two years ago. Coach Dereck Whittenburg is in his second season, taking over after the 2-26 debacle. Whittenburg has some basketball lore surrounding him; he was the guy who fed Lorenzo Charles's miracle dunk to win the 1983 national title for N.C. State, shocking Houston's then-Akeem Olajuwon and Phi Slamma Jamma.

The Rams own victories over St. Francis (NY), Iona, and Fairfield, and are capable of launching a high-powered attack, scoring 83 and 84 points in two of those three wins. Against Fairfield, they achieved something which Villanova may never have done in its long, storied history - embark on an incredible, inconceivable 33-0 run! Holding a modest 24-19 lead with 5:37 to play in the first half, they scored the final 22 points of the first half and also the first 11 of the second half, building a shocking 57-19 lead before letting up and winning just 84-68; Fairfield actually won the rest of the game 49-27. However, they were also capable of horrendous offensive performances, as a 53-39 loss to Holy Cross on the Rams' home floor also demonstrated.

The Wildcats will enjoy an eight-day respite for exams, and will return to action against the Albany Great Danes on December 22 at the Pavilion. The Wildcats will be feasting on a five-game stretch of holiday home cooking, as they don't leave the Pavilion again until traveling to Notre Dame on January 8. In that span, they face two more cupcakes (Albany and Middle Tennessee State), one Big Five rival (Pennsylvania), and a Big East squad (West Virginia).

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Villanova Holds La Salle to Just 43 Points in City Series Victory at Palestra, Winning by 11

Relying on trademark tenacious defense, Villanova overcame some atrocious outside shooting and got past Philadelphia rival La Salle, 54-43, on Saturday afternoon at the Palestra. Not since FDR was in the White House, has Villanova held the Explorers to fewer points than they did today. The 43 La Salle points were the fewest against the Wildcats, since La Salle won a tight 29-23 contest in March 1935, just the third-ever game in this long, cherished rivalry. It will most assuredly not be included in the annals of the Big Five as a particularly well-played game by either side, let alone a classic contest to savor for years in one's memories. And it wasn't really close or exciting at any point. However, both teams played hard and it was morbidly fun to watch, with a lot of turnovers, mistakes, loose balls, and long rebounds.

Villanova held La Salle to only 43 points, by playing stellar defense from the floor. The Wildcats, who entered the game ranked 4th nationally in field goal percentage defense and 9th nationally in three-point field goal percentage defense, actually IMPROVED their numbers in those departments. The Explorers were held to a measly 29% (11-38) from the floor and a pathetic 1-11 (9%) from beyond the arc. None of Villanova's four opponents have scored more than 53 points this season, and three of them have been held to 50 or fewer. That is a powerful formula for success over the long grind of the winter campaign.

Villanova also crushed the smaller Explorers on the glass and in the paint, outrebounding La Salle 44-25. The Wildcats particularly clobbered La Salle on the offensive boards, pulling down 22 offensive rebounds to 7 for the Explorers. It helped that La Salle's 6-10 Lewis Fadipe played just five minutes and still managed to foul out.

The sole bright spot for La Salle was junior forward Steven Smith. Hailed as arguably the best player in the city, Smith showed why. Despite having virtually no help from his teammates, Smith finished with a game-high 19 points and just missed a double-double with eight rebounds, and also shot a perfect 6-6 from the line (although he also committed nine turnovers, partially because he was defended so intensely). No other Explorer scored more than nine points.

For Villanova, Curtis Sumpter carried the standard with 16 points and also narrowly missed a double-double with nine boards. Allan Ray had a so-so day from the floor (4-9 shooting overall and 1-6 from beyond the arc) but it was good enough for 11 points. But far and away the best news for Villanova fans was the performance of Jason Fraser. Fraser's knee had swelled up after the Monmouth game on Tuesday and he was relegated to coming off the bench today as a result. But Fraser showed no ill effects, having a tremendous game. Fraser played 22 minutes, scoring nine points, grabbing six rebounds and swatting four La Salle shots (the only flaw being a pair of three-second violations). Marcus Austin also played well off the bench, scoring half a dozen points and collecting four rebounds in 19 minutes of action.

Of course, it wasn't all good news. Against a very weak opponent, 'Nova managed just 54 points. The Wildcats shot a dreadful 2-18 from three-point range (11%) - but La Salle's 9% was even worse. And La Salle took even worse care of the ball than 'Nova did today; the Wildcats had 17 turnovers, but the Explorers surpassed it with 20 miscues (against just six assists).

Villanova improved to 3-1 overall, 1-1 City Series, and kept their hopes alive for a potential Big Five title. The Explorers fell to 1-5 overall, 0-2 City Series; the Explorers had dropped a decision to Penn last Saturday at the Palestra, prior to Villanova's heartbreaking one-point loss to Temple.

Villanova boosted its razor-thin margin in the all-time series to 28-26. The Explorers have not beaten Villanova, since the 2001-02 season at the Pavilion. Since 1994, Villanova has dominated the series, winning seven of the last nine contests and five of the last six. Also, La Salle hasn't beaten 'Nova at the Palestra since December 17, 1983. Since the full Big Five round-robin was revived for the 1999-2000 season, four of the five Villanova/La Salle contests have been at the ancient arena, after a 15-year respite from 1985-2000. The rivalry with La Salle is one of Villanova's oldest, dating back to March 6, 1934, when 'Nova triumphed in a 25-23 barnburner on the Main Line..La Salle entered the game with a 1-4 record, including losses to James Madison and Penn, but the most galling loss was the most recent, a double-digit defeat against Central Connecticut State on the Explorers' home floor, the Tom Gola Arena. They also have a 20-point loss at Hofstra, where Villanova coach Jay Wright was at the helm prior to coming to the Main Line for the 2001-02 season. Their sole victory came against Southern California at home, and shortly afterward USC's administration took their eyes off football for a moment, in order to dismiss coach Henry Bibby, in a rare early-season firing. Although, obviously, it would not be accurate to cite the loss at La Salle as the primary reason for his ouster, a humiliating loss to a scandal-depleted team did not help Bibby's cause.

Their new coach, Dr. John Giannini, got the job after a rape scandal brought down the regime of his predecessor, Billy Hahn, during the off-season. The crimes decimated La Salle's program, due to the highly deserved firing of Hahn and the equally highly deserved expulsion of the players involved, and an outsider, Giannini, was brought in to put La Salle's once-illustrious house in order. Giannini had a lot of head coaching experience, having been at Maine for eight seasons. Giannini - a Chicago native - also was quite familiar with the Philadelphia region, having coached for seven years at Rowan (formerly Glassboro State) in New Jersey, including a national Division III championship in 1996. Coincidentally, Giannini was also a graduate assistant on the Illinois team which blew a substantial lead to Villanova in the NCAA second round in 1988, one of the most exciting comebacks I've ever seen. The Wildcats went on to reach the Elite Eight that season; no Wildcat squad hassubsequently gone so deep in the tournament. Giannini's doctorate is in kinesiology with a specialization in sports psychology. His background provides quite a contrast to Hahn.

Giannini lost 20 games in each of his first two years at Maine, and that experience with adversity should serve him well at La Salle, where the team he inherited after the Hahn fiasco is going to struggle mightily.

Will Sheridan and Chris Charles started the game, with Ray and Fraser coming off the bench. La Salle led 7-6, briefly, before its offense collapsed completely for over nine minutes, and Villanova launched a 14-0 run. (Sheridan actually was whistled for traveling no fewer than three times in the first five and a half minutes, and that obviously put a damper on Villanova's offense in that span.) It was evidently going to be quite a sloppy afternoon; the teams had already committed seven turnovers each less than eight minutes into the game. Fadibe committed his fourth foul at the 7:35 mark, forcing him to the bench (where he probably should have been after his THIRD foul in the first half). Sumpter made one of two free throws to complete the run, which vaulted Villanova to a 20-7 advantage and included two La Salle timeouts in a futile attempt to stop the momentum. The most impressive play in this span was a dunk by Fraser, on an assist from Foye.

Then Smith singlehandedly got La Salle back into the game. On consecutive possessions, Villanova had two of their many three-point misses of the day - and the ensuing long rebounds permitted Smith to fastbreak and slam them home. La Salle had gone almost ten minutes without a field goal, and suddenly had just scored dramatically on back-to-back possessions. Coach Wright opted for a timeout to discuss this undesirable development.

The teams fenced back and forth for the remainder of the half, with Smith keying the rally, but Fraser basically thwarted the comeback with an outstanding putback at the buzzer. Officials had to review the shot, but they indicated that it counted, and it restored 'Nova's momentum going into the locker room. Villanova now held a comfortable 31-20 lead at intermission.

La Salle had been held to just 30% from the floor, but 'Nova was only a little better at 38%. And the teams had combined to shoot 2-16 from beyond the arc, with one basket apiece, while also combining for 20 turnovers (11 La Salle, 9 'Nova). But the big issue was rebounding; led by eight from Sumpter alone, Villanova held a huge 25-10 advantage there.

La Salle seemed to putting its act together early in the second half, but a dunk from Fraser at the 15:30 mark made it 35-26 and halted its momentum. Some hope then seemed to be sparked by the fact that 'Nova was sinking into a morass of foul trouble, with a short bench and an ostensibly less-than-100% Fraser; Foye and Sheridan picked up their respective third fouls on consecutive series around the 14:00 mark. In a comical moment immediately after, Fadipe checked back in for the first time after his four-foul performance in the first half - and was in the game for literally six seconds, before fouling out defending Jason Fraser in the paint. He played about four minutes in the first half and six seconds in the second. (In fairness to Fadipe, it was a marginal call - he was really just playing good defense, but w/ four fouls you can't take the chance.)

La Salle's last real hope came when Wright was whistled for a technical after complaining vociferously about a non-foul call on Austin driving to the lane. The two free throws cut it to 40-32, and despite horrendous play, La Salle was still in it with 10:48 to play. But it didn't matter, as Giannini was teed up less than a minute later. Suddenly it was 49-32, a 9-0 Villanova run had resulted in just three minutes, and the last eight minutes or so was garbage time. As it had in the first half, La Salle had now gone over nine minutes without a field goal. La Salle never drew closer than 11 points the rest of the way.

An important factor was the bench, as the Wildcat bench outscored the Explorers' reserves by an astounding 26-3 margin (albeit a bit inflated by Ray and Fraser coming off it). Also worth noting: It would be cool if Mike Nardi could regain his outside shot; the sophomore is just 1-21 from beyond the arc on the season.

Ray Watch: Allan Ray entered this afternoon's game, 37 points shy of the 1,000-point mark for his Villanova career. He finished with 11, putting him 26 points away. If he has a fantastic game, he has a slim chance of reaching the mark on Tuesday against Fordham, but it's far more likely that it will come against Albany on Dec. 22 at the Pavilion.

Villanova will return to the Pavilion to take on yet another Atlantic 10 squad, Fordham, on Tuesday night. It will be the first meeting of the two schools in over 33 years, since the 1971 NCAA tournament, and the first regular-season meeting since December 1961. Three of Villanova's first five opponents this year have been Atlantic 10 members, and Villanova will also take on defending A-10 regular-season champion St. Joseph's at the Palestra in February.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Wildcats Ground Monmouth Hawks, 70-50, at the Pavilion

In a solid, albeit unspectacular, effort, the Wildcats overcame some atrocious first-half turnovers to ground the Monmouth Hawks, 70-50, at the Pavilion on Tuesday night. 'Nova committed an appalling 11 miscues in the first half, and led by just seven at intermission. However, the Wildcats blew the game open early in the second half and breezed to victory, maintaining a comfortable double-digit lead for most of the second stanza.

The sluggish start may have been due to some letdown after the difficult City Series loss to Temple at the Palestra on Saturday. Villanova improved its record to 2-1 on the young season, while Monmouth fell to 1-5 overall.

Four Wildcats reached double figures in the contest. Allan Ray and Curtis Sumpter each scored 14 points to lead all scorers, while Randy Foye (12 points) and Mike Nardi (10 points) also made significant contributions on the offensive end. Tyler Azzarelli led the Hawks with 10 points.

Villanova filled up the stat sheets very well. The bigger Wildcats crushed the Hawks on the glass, outrebounding them 36-22, and swatting eight Monmouth shots (three of those courtesy of Will Sheridan). 'Nova made 53% of its shots overall and a formidable 46% from beyond the arc, as well as a nearly-perfect 13-14 from the free throw line (93%).

Perhaps more importantly, 'Nova has played very tenacious defense thus far this year. In three games, the Wildcats have yet to yield more than 53 points. UMBC scored 41, Temple 53, and Monmouth 50; that's a good sign for the future. Also, the Hawks weren't strangers to Big East competition; in fact, in their last outing, Monmouth had actually led Seton Hall at the Meadowlands at halftime, before the Pirates fought back and eventually blew them out by 20 - ironically, 70-50, precisely the same score as tonight's contest. However, familiarity and short road trips haven't helped Monmouth against Big East opponents; the Northeast Conference school is now 0-24 all-time against the Big East.

It was Monmouth's first game against Villanova, since the Hawks came to the Main Line for the Pavilion's inaugural season in 1985-86. Villanova improved to 4-0 all-time against the Hawks. (As a New Jersey-based, nearby cupcake opponent, one would think we'd see them more often.) The Hawks also were an opponent of the 1984-85 Wildcats, who went on to capture the national championship; Villanova won a 77-62 decision that year.

The final minute of the first half was interminable, due to a couple of timeouts and a mistake by Randy Foye. Attempting a long pass on an inbounds play with less than two seconds remaining, Foye hit the scoreboard overhanging center court. This 11th and final turnover of the first half gave Monmouth an additional possession, and the Hawks capitalized upon it, with Chris Kenny scoring at the buzzer to trim the 'Nova lead to 29-22.

'Nova's defensive statistics at halftime were awesome. Monmouth was held to a shooting percentage of just 28.5%, on 8-28 shooting, and the Hawks also committed nine turnovers in being limited to just 22 points. Unfortunately, 'Nova's torrid 58% shooting percentage was offset by the 11 turnovers. Allan Ray was leading the way with nine points.

Fortunately, the 'Cats took quick control as soon as play resumed. At the under-16 timeout, VU led 42-30; at the under-12, 'Nova was up 49-32, after leading by just seven at the half. The rest of the game was uncompetitive. The best play came when Foye hit a shot as the shot clock expired at the 8:33 mark, pushing the Villanova advantage to 20. Ross Condon and Mike Grace received some playing time at the end; Condon scooped up a rebound and had an assist Chris Charles dunked, on an assist from Marcus Austin in the final minute. (Coincidentally, Monmouth had a player with the similar-sounding name of Marques Alston, who finished with seven points.)

Allan Ray moved closer to the milestone of 1,000 career points. The junior guard had entered the game 51 points shy of the mark; he finished with 14. With 37 points still to go, It would appear that he'll clear the millenial hurdle on Dec. 22 at the Pavilion, against Albany. He'll be the first Wildcat to join the club since Ricky Wright did so in 2002-03.

One oddity: Mike Nardi had 8 points at halftime, but didn't score again until just after the under-4 minute timeout.

Villanova will resume City Series play at the Palestra on Saturday afternoon, when they take on the La Salle Explorers. Both teams will be seeking to rebound from disappointing losses in last Saturday's 4th Annual Big Five Classic; the Explorers fell to Penn, prior to 'Nova's loss to Temple.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Temple Tops Villanova in Palestra Heartbreaker, 53-52

Villanova saw its City Series opener slip away in heartrending fashion on Saturday, as Temple fans stormed the court to celebrate a 53-52 victory in the 4th Annual Big Five Classic at the Palestra. Temple's Dustin Salisbery drained a three-pointer with 1:06 to play, providing what would ultimately prove to be the winning margin. Jason Fraser's slam was unfortunately rejected by Temple's Mardy Collins at crunch time. However, Temple's Antwyane Robinson missed the front end of a one-and-one, providing Villanova with a golden opportunity to take the contest. The Wildcats tried to win it in the waning seconds, but Curtis Sumpter's shot at the buzzer did not drop.

Temple broke the all-time series deadlock in its favor, and the Owls now lead the 'Cats, 40-39. Villanova fell to 0-1 City Series, 1-1 overall in the young season. Temple improved to 1-0 Big Five, 2-3 overall. Today's tripleheader, in which Penn battled La Salle and St. Joseph's took on Drexel, marked the beginning of the year-long celebrationoftheBigFive's50thanniversary.

Sumpter recorded a double-double with 15 points and 13 boards, enough to lead 'Nova in both categories, and was a perfect 6-6 from the foul line. However, he struggled from the floor, making just 4 of 12 shots. Fraser had a monster game on the defensive end, swatting five Temple shots and grabbing six rebounds. Allan Ray scuffled to a highly disappointing 4-15 from the floor, although he did finish in double figures with 11 points, while contributing five rebounds. Randy Foye also reached double figures with 10 points, adding a pair of assists and steals as well as four rebounds. Mike Nardi had a tremendously frustrating afternoon, making just 2 of his 12 field goal attempts (including 1-8 from beyond the arc) and committing five turnovers against three assists.

For Temple, Salisbery led the way with 15 points, with Collins and Mark Tyndale each chipping in 11. Collins also dealt six assists against four turnovers. Keith Butler had seven points and ten boards before fouling out, playing just 26 minutes.

Villanova overall was dreadful from the floor, a not uncommon fate for Temple opponents. The 'Cats shot a horrific 31% from the floor and an even worse 19% from three-point range: numbers which against virtually any other opponent, would have indicated a blowout loss. However, with Temple as the opponent, they were still very much in the game. Temple was almost as bad, making just 36% of its shots and 25% from three-point range- but those slightly better numbers spelled the difference between a one-point victory and a one-point defeat. It also didn't help that Temple's bench thrashed the 'Nova bench, with the reserve Owls outscoring the bench 'Cats 16-4. Coach Jay Wright opted to use just seven players, and even the two reserves were used sparingly: Will Sheridan played just 20 minutes and Chris Charles played nine. Sheridan had a strong game on defense, with four rebounds and three blocks in his limited action.

It was an exciting contest, marked by a dozen lead changes and nine ties. Temple shot out to a short-lived 5-0 lead, before the game began seesawing between the two schools. The Owls appeared on the verge of pulling away when they gained a 22-15 lead, following layups from Butler and Wayne Marshall at the 2:35 mark. Villanova rallied, though, finishing the half on a 8-2 run, ending when Sumpter laid it in with 13 seconds to play. Temple held a narrow one-point advantage at intermission.

Other than the horrendous shooting, the halftime numbers looked reasonably okay for 'Nova. Six different players had scored, and the 'Cats had won the battle on the glass by two, 23-21. Ray had six points to lead 'Nova, while Salisbery had seven for Temple.

Temple would gain its largest lead of the second half, when Tyndale nailed a triple with 14:46 to go. The three-pointer put Temple up 33-27, and the Owls get particularly tough when they have a lead to protect and their slow, deliberative pace can have its full impact. Villanova responded with its finest stretch of the contest, ripping off nine straight points to recapture the momentum. Fraser came up with a block and then dunked to deadlock the game at 33, and Sumpter then hit a three to give 'Nova a 36-33 advantage. The Villanova lead peaked at four, when Will Sheridan converted a jumper with 8:40 to play, putting 'Nova up 40-36. The Wildcats' last lead would come at the 2:37 mark, after a layup by Randy Foye made it 49-48. Unfortunately, Villanova scored just three points the rest of the way. Temple successfully clung to its lead, not scoring for the final 1:07, and it was just enough. Villanova's 15 turnovers, and the 17 points which directly resulted, also hampered the cause.

Entering the game, in a remarkable coincidence, the all-time series overall, as well as those played at the Palestra, and John Chaney's personal record against 'Nova, were all deadlocked. Each team had won 39 games overall, 16 apiece at the storied venue on Penn's campus, and 10 each in games in which Chaney had coached. Villanova had enjoyed a lot of success at Temple's expense in recent years: 'Nova had won four of the last five meetings, especially the 73-48 shocking opener to last year's midnight season opener at the Liacouras Center. The teams also met in the inaugural Big Five Classic, in December 2001, with Villanova triumphing. Villanova had also done quite well at the Palestra over the last couple of years: the Wildcats had won eight of their last 10 games there.

The Wildcats will try to rebound from the disappointing loss, when Monmouth travels to the Pavilion on Tuesday night. They will then return to the Palestra for another try, when they meet City Series foe La Salle on Saturday afternoon.