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.

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