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.

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