Sunday, January 30, 2005

Wildats Massacre Scarlet Knights: RU's Worst RAC Loss Ever

Just a week after crushing #2 Kansas, Villanova handed Rutgers its worst defeat in the 27-year history of the RAC on Saturday, ruthlessly slaying the Scarlet Knights by a 94-61 margin. The Wildcats can bank on a Top 25 appearance on Monday.

It would be best to begin today's article, by noting that Baker Dunleavy and Tom Grace combined to score eight points, with Dunleavy posting a career-high five. For most veteran Villanova observers, that fact alone would probably be enough to communicate the magnitude of the Villanova victory today. Conversely, former Scarlet Knight football player L.J. Smith, now a member of the Super Bowl-bound Philadelphia Eagles, was introduced to an appreciative RAC crowd, RU's fourth sellout of the year. And that single fact effectively begins and ends the positive aspects of today's game, for Rutgers partisans. Literally. (Had he suited up, Smith probably could have helped Rutgers today more than their regular players did.)

Today's list of superlative accomplishments by the Wildcats:

It was Villanova's biggest victory on the road, regardless of opponent, in over ten years. On December 30, 1994, Kerry Kittles and company flattened football archrival Delaware 90-54, at Delaware, a 36 point margin.

It was Rutgers' worst Big East defeat since it joined the conference in 1995-96.

It was Villanova's biggest victory over Rutgers in a series which dates (although sporadically) back to 1932, comprising 26 games. The previous high had been a 23 point victory, a 79-56 triumph at the Pavilion on January 18, 1997 (generally known as the Tim Thomas year, when he joined seniors Alvin Williams, Jason Lawson, and Chuck Kornegay).

It was a season-high 94 points for Villanova.

Finally, as mentioned before, this was Rutgers's worst margin of defeat at the RAC, in the 27 years of its existence. (Ironically, the Villanova feat topped a Big Five rival, Temple. The Owls defeated RU at the RAC, 84-53, in 1988, when both schools were members of the Atlantic Ten.)

Villanova now leads the all-time series, 20-7.

Villanova is playing its best basketball in nearly a decade, as it seeks to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. It seems absurd to say that the Wildcats improved on last Saturday's historic performance against the vaunted Jayhawks - but in many ways they did. This afternoon's game wasn't even remotely competitive. Last week, only the second half wasn't competitive. Villanova took firm control in the early going, making 13 of its first 18 shots. They led at halftime, 44-26, after Jason Fraser banked home a shot at the buzzer off the glass, and never even broke a sweat. Rutgers never got closer than 15 points in the second half - and even when they drew that close, the Wildcats swiftly blew off the doors of the RAC with a devastating 24-3 run. The RAC has a deserved reputation as one of the most difficult buildings in America for an opponent. But Villanova won today, by the greatest margin of ANY Rutgers opponent to ever step into that building.

The Wildcats also avenged last season's NIT quarterfinal loss at Rutgers; it was hard to believe that it was the same two teams playing. And undoubtedly it crossed the mind of more than one dismayed Rutgers fan, administrator, and staffer - "Jay Wright could have been here with these players." (In 2001, when Wright was hired at Villanova, Rutgers came VERY close to snaring him from Hofstra, first - to make a long story short.)

Instead, the Scarlet Knights will play out the string and go home, barring an extremely unlikely Big East tournament run. Rutgers fell to 1-6 Big East and 7-10 overall. Villanova won its third straight game, boosting its record to 4-3 Big East, 12-4 overall. The Wildcats almost entered the Top 25 last week, on the strength of its convincing victory over Kansas on Saturday and the narrow loss at #9 Boston College last week, receiving 77 votes, the highest of any team not to be included. Therefore, Villanova is not only assured of cracking the Top 25 this week, but will likely be considerably higher than #25 (possibly #21 or #22), after defeating a solid Notre Dame squad on Wednesday and annihilating Rutgers, at the RAC, today.

And despite their record, Rutgers isn't awful. The Scarlet Knights came within a sword's length of slaying one of the Big East's perennial dragons, #4 Syracuse, a couple of days ago, finally yielding 86-84.

About the only semblance of bad news after today's stunning performance is the fact that Villanova won't get to play Rutgers again in the regular season. The Wildcats' defense was simply stellar; Villanova permitted RU to shoot a pathetic 29% from the floor, a number which makes one wonder how the Scarlet Knights actually managed to score 61 points. Quincy Douby, RU's top weapon and a guy that's caused problems for 'Nova in the past, was completely whitewashed. Douby had reached double figures in EVERY game this season - and today he didn't even score. Douby played 26 minutes and failed to score a single point, despite taking seven shots from the floor (although he did contribute with six assists). Ricky Shields went 1-7 from the floor and only managed to get to eight points because he went 5-5 from the line. Ollie Bailey, the team's third-best scorer and second-best rebounder, finished with seven points and two rebounds, playing just 20 minutes.

Rutgers coach Gary Waters emptied his bench early, out of vexation - no starter logged more than 31 minutes and only one more than 27. If that sounds familiar, it should. Because it's exactly what Kansas coach Bill Self did last week, and for precisely the same reasons. Virtually every deep reserve in the Big East, as well as St. Joseph's and Bucknell, has likely now circled the Villanova game in red ink on their calendars, as a chance to increase their playing time.

And it's not just the Wildcats' opponents' bench players, who are benefiting from the Wildcats' recent romps. As noted above, Dunleavy and Grace combined to score eight points, but that wasn't all. Dunleavy played for five minutes and even took three shots, finishing with five points, an assist and a foul. Dunleavy had only played eight minutes (and scored two points), during the entire SEASON thus far. The only other time that Dunleavy, in his two-year career, has even played more than he did today, was the bizarre triple-digit victory at the Redlands at the beginning of last season, when the Wildcats faced a run-and-gun opponent with a phone-card-suspension-depleted team. Grace scored three points and played six minutes, more than Marcus Austin. (Which can't bode well for Austin's playing time prospects the rest of the way. It's hard to believe that he once singlehandedly destroyed Rutgers in that building.)

Even Jason Fraser, wounded in action, returned ahead of schedule. Fraser made a significant contribution in just 13 minutes. He demonstrably owned the red paint at both ends of the RAC floor, grabbing seven rebounds, blocking three shots and scoring four points (if you projected that into 39 minutes of action, that's a 21-rebounds, nine-block, 12-point afternoon). And the effort was even more remarkable, since his injured hand was taped up like a NFL lineman's. With Fraser WAY ahead of his expected return and the outcome not in doubt, Wright wisely opted to keep him on the bench most of the game.

It was probably as methodical a destruction as Villanova has ever delivered to an opponent. Four Wildcats reached double figures, and two more just missed it with nine points apiece. The Wildcats shot a phenomenal 64% from the floor and 54% from beyond the arc. Once again, Allan Ray led the way, scoring 21 points on 7-10 shooting. Curtis Sumpter had 16 points and five rebounds on 6-9 shooting. Randy Foye had 14 points and four rebounds, also on 6-9 shooting. Will Sheridan had a particularly impressive game, finishing with a dozen points on 5-6 shooting, half a dozen rebounds, three steals, and two blocks, and he did it all in just 24 minutes. Mike Nardi competently ran the point, finishing with five assists against two turnovers, scoring nine points on 4-7 shooting. Finally, Kyle Lowry, returning from his one-game suspension after punching Kansas's Jeff Hawkins last week, more than made up for it. He played 25 minutes, scoring nine points, four rebounds and three assists. He also had a steal, an embarrassing pickpocketing of a RU player which he then laid in, uncontested- boosting Villanova's lead to 67-44 and succinctly summarizing Rutgers's fate today.

In an unusual manner for a Gary Waters-coached team, the Scarlet Knights just quit today in the second half. Some teams continue to play 100% when they fall behind, and others don't. Today, RU clearly fell into the latter category. Villanova pounded them 44-26 in the first half, and scored MORE points (50) in the second half, despite the fact that a good chunk of it was being played by bench players. 'Nova scored 50 points just after halftime (although it is true that RU lost the second half by "only" 15 points, as opposed to 18.) When you give up 50 points in the second half on your home floor, you've packed it in.

Villanova, riding the giddy wave of unexpected success, will travel to its old nemesis Connecticut, the defending national champions, on Wednesday night - a Groundhog Day showdown. A victory at the #16 Huskies would almost certainly cement a NCAA bid.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Villanova Rallies in 2nd Half to Top Notre Dame, 65-60, at Wachovia Center

Villanova did not crash after Saturday's historic hosing of unbeaten, then-#2 Kansas. Instead, the Wildcats continued to crest, notching a 65-60 victory over Notre Dame at the Wachovia Center and avenging their loss in South Bend on January 8.

Villanova improved its record to 11-4 overall, 3-3 Big East, as it returned to conference play after the brief foray against the Big XII's Kansas Jayhawks. Notre Dame dropped to 12-5 overall, 4-3 Big East.

After crushing Kansas and narrowly losing at Boston College, both Top 10 teams, Villanova was rewarded with 77 votes in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll - the most of any school not ranked. If the Wildcats manage to prevail at Rutgers on Saturday, they will undoubtedly be ranked in next Monday's poll.

This was an important game for both teams, as both will certainly be on the NCAA bubble right up to Selection Sunday. The Irish placed fourth in the Big East in the preseason coaches' poll and their play thus far has vindicated those assessments. Notre Dame came into the game red-hot, winning eight of its previous ten contests. Central to the Wildcats' efforts this evening would be shutting down ND's featured star, Chris Thomas. Thomas scored 25 points, including a nail-in-the-coffin three from the corner, in Notre Dame's 78-72 victory over 'Nova on January 8 in South Bend - clearly demonstrating why he was named preseason first-team All-Big East. He has never missed a game in his career and played in his 116th career game tonight. In Notre Dame's tough one-point loss to Georgetown on Sunday, Thomas became only the 16th player in ND history to score over 2,000 points.

The Wildcats were reasonably successful in shutting down Thomas, who struggled from the floor, making just four of his 14 attempts. He had a decent game (12 points and eight rebounds while playing all 40 minutes) but not quite good enough to permit the Irish to steal a game on the road against a good team. Torin Francis picked up the slack, having a great game (19 points and 13 rebounds, both team-highs), and he did it while playing just 30 minutes. Chris Quinn also reached double figures with 13 points, four rebounds and four assists.

For Villanova, Allan Ray was awesome, scoring 23 points on 8-16 shooting. Randy Foye also had a solid performance, scoring 20 points but requiring 7-20 shooting to do it. Curtis Sumpter just missed another double-double, finishing with 11 points and nine rebounds. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Wildcats finished with just five turnovers. This feat was what permitted them to win despite shooting just 37% from the floor (although it was also helped by the strong 47% from beyond the arc).

Notre Dame is celebrating its 100th year of basketball this season, and are doing it in grand style. (To put it in context, even Villanova's storied program won't get to do it for another 15 years.) The Irish entered the season nationally ranked for the second straight year, at #20, although it should be noted that they've been out of the polls for two months now. Notre Dame also enjoyed the thrill of beating Indiana - at Indiana - for the first time since 1973, after which Mike Brey observed that the last time that happened he "was 14 years old and listening to the Bee Gees". It was also the first time Notre Dame had beaten Indiana at all since 1994. Brey and Coach J also go back a long way in their personal rivalry, when Brey was at Delaware and Wright was at Hofstra, both then America East schools. Tonight was the 17th time the duo have faced off, and after tonight, Brey holds a 11-6 lead over Wright.

Villanova continues to dominate the series with Notre Dame since the Irish joined the Big East in 1995-96. The Wildcats now lead the overall series by a slim 14-12 margin, but have routinely defeated Notre Dame since conference play began. Villanova has won those games, 9-2. Notre Dame also continues to struggle in the Wachovia Center, as the Irish are just 1-4 there (their sole victory came last season).

Coach Jay Wright had to contend with a short bench tonight, due to the ongoing injury to Jason Fraser and the disciplinary action meted out to Kyle Lowry. Lowry served a mandatory one-game suspension for punching Kansas player Jeff Hawkins, shortly before halftime of Saturday's game. This left Wright with a rotation of simply seven players (Ray, Foye, Nardi, Sumpter, Sheridan, Chris Charles, and Austin). As a result, Wright made heavy demands on the five starters, who played virtually the entire game. Austin played 10 minutes and Charles just three, and neither scored a point, combining for two rebounds and a blocked shot, all from Austin. It would probably be difficult to find a game in recent Villanova history where the bench failed to score a single point, even during all of those phone-card suspension games where the team frequently played shorthanded.

Foye rocked the Wachovia Center in the beginning, scoring nine points in the first eight minutes and leading 'Nova to an early 15-10 advantage, while ND committed six turnovers in the first eight minutes. Back-to-back threes from Allan Ray helped put 'Nova up 23-13 early, however, ND enjoyed a 24-7 run to end the half. With 33.8 seconds, Foye drove to the hole and and-one'd it in, to cut it to 34-30, Notre Dame. That was 'Nova's first free throw of the half - and in doing so, Foye reached the millennial milestone (more about that below). Unfortunately, back at the other end, Torin Francis was fouled by Marcus Austin, and Francis completed a three-point play to make it 37-30 at intermission, reclaiming the momentum. While VU scored 13 points off turnovers to ND's 4 in the first half, ND went 5-10 from the line in half, ten times VU's trips to the line. (Ironically, Villanova would ultimately finish the game with 20 FT attempts to ND's 16.)

Notre Dame still clung to its single digit lead for much of the second half, before Villanova finally erased it at the 9:07 mark, thanks to consecutive threes from Foye and Sumpter. And ND would never retake the lead. The Irish managed just eight points in the final 11:47 of the contest. Some clutch free-throw shooting from 'Nova was enough to keep the Irish at bay and secure Villanova's second straight victory at the Wachovia Center in five days.

With these two triumphs, the Wildcats have a chance to do what no other Villanova team has done since the building opened for the 1996-97 season: win three games there. Only one other squad has managed to go undefeated there: the 2000-01 team, which went 2-0. The Wildcats will attempt to complete the sweep on February 12 against Syracuse.

Foye Hits A Thousand: Foye finally reached 1,000 points tonight, the 47th player in Wildcat history to do so and the second to achieve the mark this season (Allan Ray became the 46th a couple of weeks ago).

Villanova travels up to the RAC at Rutgers, one of the toughest venues for a visitor in America, on Saturday afternoon.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

'CATS GONE WILD: Villanova, Lowry KO #2 KU in Stunning, Lopsided Upset - Jayhawks Fall by 21 Points, 83-62

By a misfortune of the calendar and the elements, Villanova had a lot of competition for public attention this weekend in Greater Philadelphia, due to the imminent arrival of a foot of snow and the impending NFC Championship game at Lincoln Financial Field, a stone's throw from the Wachovia Center, between the Atlanta Falcons and the hometown Eagles. But the Wildcats succeeded in commanding not only local, but national media attention, by flattening the Kansas Jayhawks, 83-62, on Saturday, in a game in which Villanova led by as many as 32 points. A sampling of headlines included: "Whiteout" and "Gain Through Pain" from, while Yahoo! Sports (not just NCAA Hoops) proclaimed on its front page: "Kansas Slammed by Super Nova" while showing a photo of gleeful 'Nova fans storming the court in celebration.

As it turned out, Mother Nature wasn't the only one packing a wallop this weekend in Philadelphia. The Jayhawks moved more slowly than the sparse traffic on the nearby Schuylkill Expressway, while the foot of snow fell during the game. And KU paid the price, totalling their gleaming undefeated season and requiring a tow all the way back to Lawrence. The Jayhawks were simply steamrolled, flatter than the Kansas prairie. Legendary coach Phog Allen, the namesake of the Jayhawks' venue, Allen Field House, was undoubtedly spinning in his grave. It was the Jayhawks' first-ever trip to the Philadelphia region to face Villanova, and this experience would seem to militate against their coming back for another visit.

It seemed only fitting that in a building which has the statue of Rocky Balboa just a block away at the old Spectrum, that Villanova would do its home city proud and emulate the timeless Sylvester Stallone character's heart and tenacity. One Wildcat actually went a little too far and literally emulated Balboa, as freshman Kyle Lowry was ejected soon before halftime, for delivering a left jab to the gut of a Jayhawk. (Clubber Lang would have been impressed, though.)

And just like a movie, it had a lot of scenes that seemed ridiculous. Such as Jay Wright chivalrously sending in Baker Dunleavy with over two minutes to play, and his walk-ons in the final minute, to avoid running up the score on KANSAS, in a game where he wouldn't have Jason Fraser available. And Kansas coach Bill Self taking all of his starters out, at one point early in the second half - out of frustration (even a walk-on was sent out in place of a starter). And Villanova fans rooting passionately at the end - but not for the usual reasons. Instead of beseeching the Almighty for steady 'Nova nerves at the foul line - instead, simply that nobody would get hurt during garbage time, and that Kansas wouldn't get the final margin under 20, thus masking the true dimensions of the annihilation. (KU did make an unfortunate three-pointer in the final minute, getting them above 60 points, but that's OK.)

Some superlatives:

It was - FAR AND AWAY - Villanova's most significant victory in over a decade. The last time 'Nova won a game this big, was on February 15, 1994, when Kerry Kittles, Jason Lawson and Eric Eberz shocked #1 Connecticut at the Pavilion. Villanova was coming off a 8-19 season and would swiftly revive its program, going on to win the NIT that year. (Villanova also defeated #1 Connecticut the following year, at Gampel Pavilion, but that Wildcat team was a lot better so it wasn't as significant an upset. That team would ultimately receive a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament, before meeting its notorious, premature first-round demise in triple overtime at the hands of Petey Sessoms and Old Dominion, a game which still haunts the program to this day.)

It was Villanova's first victory over a Top 10 team since defeating Michigan State in November 2002, just after the arrival of the Fab Four.

It was Villanova's first victory over a team ranked #1 or #2, since stunning #1 Connecticut in 1994.

It was Villanova's first-ever victory against Kansas, although that is not that impressive in light of the fact that the teams have only played three times. In the 1968 NIT, Kansas won 55-49 at Madison Square Garden, and last season Villanova lost at Allen Field House, 86-79.

It was Villanova's first victory over a Big 12 (or, if we must, Big XII) opponent since 1998-99, when 'Nova topped Nebraska, 75-60, on November 19, 1998, in Alaska. ('Nova doesn't face these prairie teams often.)

It was unquestionably Villanova's finest game EVER at the Wachovia Center/First Union Center/CoreStates Center, since the building's grand opening for the 1996-97 season. The only game which could be better was the January 30, 1999, 93-90 double overtime victory over Georgetown, when the Hoyas led by three, with two free throws coming in the final seconds:

Georgetown missed them both, Howard Brown nailed a three from the corner to tie the game, and Jermaine Medley, with an assist from Brooks Sales, hit a miraculous three off a steal to WIN the game. (The most exciting ending I've ever personally witnessed.) But obviously, this game was a much stronger overall performance against a much formidable opponent - it just didn't have the dramatic ending that one did.

Kansas, wearing red jerseys which didn't make them seem like KU (and their subsequent play obviously made it seem even less so), fell to 14-1 overall and will undoubtedly make life very unpleasant for Baylor, who has the misfortune of being its next opponent. Villanova improved to 10-4 overall and will remain on the NCAA bubble through Selection Sunday, thanks to this signature victory.

Allan Ray lit up Kansas for a game-high 27 points on 9-16 shooting, including 4-7 from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Curtis Sumpter had one of the finest games of his career. Sumpter had a monster game, rocking Kansas for 25 points, chalking up six boards, hitting five of his six three-point attempts and going 8-8 from the line. Mike Nardi ran the point smoothly, committing just a pair of turnovers, and also chipped in 11 points. Randy Foye struggled with his shot, but contributed in other ways: six rebounds, a blocked shot, four assists and four steals. Chris Charles was effective off the bench filling in for Fraser, even blocking a couple of Kansas shots. Overall, 'Nova shot the lights out from beyond the arc, an incredible 63% (12-19) and were deadly accurate from the line (15-16, a 94% clip).

Kansas committed 22 turnovers against 24 field goals, including seven miscues in the first eight minutes alone. For the Jayhawks, Wayne Simien was tops with 15 points, with J.R. Giddens and Sasha Kaun also scoring 11 points. Only two Jayhawks played more than 25 minutes, as Self vainly tried to come up with a combination that would stem the Villanova tide. It wasn't going to happen, although Self ultimately used 13 players, all of whom played at least four minutes and none more than 30.

It was surprisingly close in the first half, with Kansas trailing by just four near the end of the half, despite the early turnovers. While 'Nova led by as much as 11, the Wildcats led by "only" seven at halftime over the #2 team in the nation, without their starting center. KU had actually gotten it down to four in the final minute of the half, before Nardi helped restore the momentum by hitting a HUGE three in the final seconds.

Villanova blew open the game early in the second half, resuming play with a 31-6 run which left the score an incredible 70-40 after consecutive threes by Ray and Sumpter with 8:36 to play. The stunned Jayhawks called yet another timeout, and to no avail. It was over. The only issue was whether the defeat would be by an historic margin or just a wide one. The rest of the game was garbage time. As it turned out, it would be Kansas' worst defeat in four years.

It was a far more pleasant game than Villanova's last tangle with Kansas, in a rare Friday night game on January 2, 2004. Villanova put up a fine effort, battling to a 38-38 draw at intermission before running out of steam and succumbing to the notorious Allen home court advantage, falling by seven.

The crowd was surprisingly large and vocal, in spite of the adverse weather. If you're going to have a heavy snowstorm for a home game, you're often OK if it's on-campus (at least if the students aren't on break) because snowbound students can usually be motivated to attend the local hardwood action a few yards from their dorms. Usually off-campus, though, you're in trouble - but not today. And of course, they stormed the court afterwards, and if ever a victory warranted a court-storming, it was this one. (It was Villanova's first court-storming since the February 9, 2002 upset of #16 UCLA at the Pavilion, and its first-ever at the Center.)

The single discouraging word that could be uttered about today's contest, was the ejection of Kyle Lowry for throwing a punch. The game was stopped for a while while the officials pored over the game monitor, which revealed that Lowry did in fact punch a Kansas player. The freshman was dismissed from the remaining 21 minutes or so of game action and headed for the locker room, waving to the crowd, which naturally disliked the officials' verdict, just though it was. Although Lowry's presence today obviously didn't matter, NCAA rules stipulate that he will miss the Notre Dame game as a result of the ejection. Also, he will need to watch his behavior carefully for the remainder of the year, as the penalty for a second fight in the same season is suspension for the rest of the season, a la the NBA's punishment issued to the odious Ron Artest for the notorious fiasco in Detroit a few weeks ago. Opponents, knowing this, will likely goad Lowry, knowing that he can't afford to lose his temper. (Villanova last experienced this constant vigilance in the 1990s with Jason Lawson, after he was involved in a fight against Bradley. The schools wisely waited until all the players involved in the fight graduated before scheduling the return game, which Bradley promptly won.)

Aside from having to watch his back the whole year, Lowry's presence will be missed against ND on Wednesday. He actually could have helped 'Nova win TODAY, had his talents been necessary. Lowry scored seven points in the 11 first-half minutes that he DID get to play and was a big reason why 'Nova had an early lead.

Foye Watch: Foye entered today's game with 983 career points. After finishing with seven today, putting him at 990, he will probably take the milestone against Notre Dame on Wednesday at the Wachovia Center. He will be just the 47th Wildcat to achieve the mark, following in the immediate footsteps of Allan Ray and Ricky Wright.

Unfortunately, the cruel realities of college basketball dictate that Villanova doesn't automatically take home the national title to the Main Line after today's glorious victory, although it was obvious that they were the best team in America, at least for two hours this afternoon. Instead, the Wildcats will have to play some more games to make that happen - and today's outcome assures that they'll all be meaningful, right up till Selection Sunday. Notre Dame will arrive at the Wachovia Center, weather permitting, for a rematch on Wednesday, in a game whose attendance will likely be swelled by a lot of bandwagoners. ND triumphed on Jan. 9 in South Bend.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Dudley's 36 Does Wildcats Wrong, As #9 Boston College Wins

Villanova put up a gallant effort, but ultimately fell just short of upsetting undefeated, #9 Boston College on Wednesday night at Conte Forum. On the eve of George W. Bush's second inaugural, the Wildcats were defeated like Massachusetts native and BC Law alumnus John F. Kerry - close but not quite enough for victory, by a tantalizingly close margin, after they thought they had it won.

Unlike Kerry, however, the Wildcats were not forced to endure exit polls forecasting a resounding victory all day Wednesday, nor stay up all night until Jay Wright called BC coach Al Skinner to concede the next morning. And instead of having to wait four more years for another chance, the Wildcats get to play again on Saturday against Kansas. Although it's entirely possible that once the undefeated, second-ranked Jayhawks arrive at the Wachovia Center, that Villanova will be sorry they came. The rematch with BC - which stayed one of just four unbeaten teams in America - will come on Wednesday, February 23 at the Pavilion. Nonetheless, just as it was for those who lost the last election, the bitter loss - Villanova blew a six-point lead in the final two minutes - will linger for a long time, especially if the Wildcats fail to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight season.

Jared Dudley was the reigning Big East Player of the Week after wreaking havoc against imploding West Virginia a few days ago (the once-undefeated Mountaineers have lost four of their last five). Tonight, Dudley had a career game - but "career game" is a considerable understatement. Dudley finished with a shocking 36 points, including four of five free throws in the final minute, and singlehandedly led BC to victory. The sophomore had already surpassed his previous career best of 24 points by halftime after registering 25 points, and had 32 points just 24 minutes into the game. Dudley filled out the rest of the stat sheet as well, grabbing six rebounds and three steals and dishing out four assists while playing all but one minute of the contest. Craig Smith also scored a dozen points and collected seven boards for Boston College, the only other Eagle to have much of an impact.

For Villanova, Randy Foye was the clear-cut star with 22 points. But unfortunately, the fans will likely best remember the points Foye did NOT score: namely, the front end of the one-and-one he missed with 39 seconds to play, as well as the two shots in the final minute, including the would-be buzzer-beater which hit the rim. The same could be said for Mike Nardi, who continued his offensive renaissance with a dozen points, but who missed a jumper in the last minute and also missed the front end of a one-and-one with 25 seconds to play. Allan Ray, despite being saddled with foul trouble, also scored 12 points while being limited to just 27 minutes. The recently returned Curtis Sumpter played, but was not a major factor due to foul trouble. Sumpter logged just 17 minutes and six points before fouling out.

It was the second straight galling defeat for the Wildcats, who have lost their last two games by a total of three points - on Saturday, Villanova fell to Georgetown, 66-64. Villanova is now 2-3 Big East, 9-4 overall, and has lost two straight for the first time this season. Boston College kept its record unblemished at 4-0 Big East, 15-0 overall, in its Big East swan song. The Eagles rode a hugely lopsided advantage at the foul line to victory. BC went 21-27 (78%), while 'Nova went 4-7 (57%): the Eagles took nearly four times as many attempts. Villanova still could have won, had it cashed in on the rare ones it DID get at the charity stripe.

The loss of Jason Fraser was readily apparent from this game. Villanova had just 16 points from its frontcourt of four players (Sumpter, Will Sheridan, Marcus Austin and Chris Charles) and there won't be a lot of victories when your entire frontcourt is held in the teens.

This was the 75th meeting all-time between BC and Villanova, and Villanova now leads the series by a 51-24 margin. This was the diamond anniversary game, but it was a considerably flawed diamond. Nobody - at least not on Villanova's side - will be making ads with this game's highlights, with black-and-white footage, stirring classical music, and proclaiming that it means "forever". It certainly won't mean forever, with BC leaving the Big East after this year. It was Villanova's eighth loss in its last ten games against Boston College overall, and its fourth in its last five trips to Conte Forum.

The subtext to the games this year is the imminent departure of Boston College to the Atlantic Coast Conference after this season. Miami and Virginia Tech were able to leave this season but BC was unable to, for legal reasons, forcing the Eagles to play a final lame-duck season.

BC broke faith with its fellow Northeast Catholic schools, and long-time BE members, Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's, and Georgetown, and opted instead to throw in its lot with football and the expansion of its geographical horizons to the Southeast. It likely has just signed itself up for a lot of horrendously expensive travel for all non-revenue sports (the closest ACC member will be in College Park, Maryland, outside Washington), a permanent status as misfit among big state schools, and geographically isolated with no major rivalries.

Of course, teams shift conferences all the time and I don't have a problem with them doing it, per se. Miami and Virginia Tech are better fits for the ACC anyway, given their Southern locations and powerhouse football programs. But my major problem with BC was the fact that BC had made a good-faith agreement when the other two left that it would stay - and then simply reneged upon the agreement.

VU shot 50% from the floor (14-28) in the first half, and in a statistical oddity, Boston College posted an identical 14-28, 50% from the floor, also. Which makes it unusual that BC went 11-14 from the foul line, while 'Nova went just 4-5 from line, accounting for BC's 40-34 halftime advantage.

Dudley (17) and Smith (8) scored all of BC's first 25 points while taking 17 of BC's first 19 shots, with Sean Marshall the other 2 - Dudley was 8-10 and Smith 3-7 from the floor. Dudley had 25 at the half and 30 of BC's first 45 points, less than three minutes into the second half. He had 32 out of 49 at the 15:08 mark, the under 16 timeout. Sumpter picked up his fourth foul with about 16 minutes left, banishing him to the bench and probably fatally sinking any chance 'Nova had at victory. Some hope was given, when Dudley picked up his own third foul on the next possession, but it was dashed when Ray picked up his own fourth foul shortly after. Wright really had no choice but to leave Ray out there, as 'Nova wouldn't have much offense without the injured Jason Fraser, Sumpter, OR Ray on the floor at any given time.

BC extended its lead to nine at the 14:15 mark, 52-43, and was on the verge of knocking the Wildcats out of the gym before 'Nova launched a stirring comeback. Villanova went on a 13-2 run and seized the lead, but it was nip-and-tuck for most of the rest of the way. BC's Sean Williams tied it with a layup at the 5:45 mark, 60-60. The Wildcats made what should have been a decisive 6-0 run after that, due to a tip-in from Austin and consecutive jumpers from Foye, the second coming at the 2:08 mark and boosting 'Nova's lead to 66-60. But Villanova would fail to score a single point the rest of the game, sealing its fate.

Nate Doornekamp converted an "and-one" off Kyle Lowry to cut it to 66-63 with 1:31 to go, and then Nardi and Foye kept missing shots. Dudley made two of three free throws with 28 seconds to play to close to within 66-65. After Nardi's miss of the front end immediately after, Dudley was fouled by Austin with six seconds to play. He made both when it counted, giving the Eagles the victory, after Foye's last gasp hit the rim at the buzzer. BC had five come-from-behind victories this year, and now has six.

Foye Watch: Foye entered the game with 961 points in his Main Line career, just 39 shy of the millennial milestone. After 22 points at Conte Forum tonight, he is well-positioned to reach the mark at the Wildcats' quasi-home floor at the Wachovia Center over the next two games. He will return to Philadelphia with 983 points. Foye will be the 47th player to eclipse 1,000 or more points. Allan Ray and Ricky Wright were the two most recent players to make it.

The Wildcats' fortunes will now shift to the Wachovia Center in South Philadelphia for the next two contests. Villanova will take on the national powerhouse Kansas Jayhawks, ranked #2, on Saturday afternoon. Wednesday night, they will attempt to avenge their earlier loss to Notre Dame.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

20 Years Later: Still 66-64, But Georgetown Wins This Time, In First-Ever Visit to Pavilion and First Trip to Villanova Campus Since 1950

All the elements were in place for another storybook ending, on Saturday afternoon. There was a raucous, emotionally expressive crowd and the authors of the miraculous victory, at halfcourt at halftime. (For more on the significance of 1985 and the presence of the former players, please see the subsequent article on that topic. )

And instead of being sent to the Pavilion parking lot happy with another victory over one of its long-time Big East rivals, the Villanova fans were shocked, dismayed and consternated by one of 'Nova's most bizarre losses in the last decade. After Will "Bump" Sheridan dunked to tie the game at 64, overtime seemed inevitable: five more minutes of exciting basketball. That is, until Georgetown whisked the ball up the court, catching the Villanova players flat-footed. Without calling a timeout, Georgetown's Ashanti Cook flung the ball straight up the middle of the floor, neatly splitting the Wildcats' defenders, and Darrel Owens broke away for what would have been an easy, game-winning basket at the buzzer. Curtis Sumpter wisely fouled him to prevent his doing so, with just one-tenth of a second gleaming from the Pavilion scoreboard.

At this point, a long delay ensued. Coach Jay Wright vociferously asserted to the officials that Cook had been over the end line when he inbounded the ball. Therefore, not only should Georgetown not have the chance to go to the line, but it would be a turnover, and Villanova would resume possession under the Hoyas' hoop with 2 seconds to play with a chance to WIN, an attractive feature of Wright's argument. Also, it had the beneficial effect that even if Wright's plea failed, it iced Owens. He is a 57% free throw shooter and even with two guaranteed shots and needing just one, a Georgetown victory was far from assured.

During this delay, I kept trying to figure out what the basketball "book" dictated in this unusual situation. Should the Wildcats be pulled off the foul line? (That's what I decided I would do.) Nothing positive could come from their being there. There wouldn't be enough time to for Villanova to score, since the clock would start by rule when the ball re-entered play, or to grab it and call timeout. (Of course, Georgetown could score on a tip-in, if they got the rebound, but if the ball re-entered play and there was a rebound to be had, the game was over ANYWAY, whether they tipped it in or not.) All that could happen would be a potential lane violation (real or imagined) that could give the Hoya an extra shot. Plus, it's harder to shoot free throws with the lane half-empty because it's unusual.

Anyhow, Owens rendered the point moot by sinking the first one to put Georgetown up by one, 65-64. Then, for reasons which I still cannot figure out, he inexplicably made the second one, eschewing the opportunity to let the clock run out by just hitting the ball with the rim. In an instant, Villanova's chances of victory had increased from nil (65-64) to 1% (66-64). Maybe you could throw it long, and someone could get fouled going for it. Or someone could tip it in. It's important to note that in these buzzer-beater situations, the team trying to score will always have a little longer than the clock indicates. There's "reaction time" - the official has to see the ball touch something/someone, lower his hand, the scorer has to see that signal, touch the mechanism, and the electrical impulses have to go to the scoreboard to set off the horn - and by the time all that stuff happens you've ended with up with an extra couple of tenths of a second.

That almost happened, as it turned out. The ball was heaved long, and there was a collision going for it. Wright vociferously demanded a foul, but it wouldn't have been reasonable to call one there. Game over. 'Nova loses, 66-64. (Perhaps this fiasco was the "alternate ending" for the 1985 game, since neither DVD technology nor clocks which measured tenths of seconds were in common use in the Reagan era.)

It was Georgetown's first-ever visit to the Pavilion and the Hoyas' first visit to the Villanova campus in over half a century - since March 6, 1950, when Villanova triumphed 82-72 at the Fieldhouse. Since then, Georgetown has always come to the Palestra, Spectrum, or CoreStates/First Union/Wachovia Center for Villanova home games. Villanova had won five of the last six games in the series, which Georgetown now leads 34-24.

The loss was a substantial setback to Villanova's NCAA hopes. Granted, usually when you have only three losses by the middle of January, you're in pretty good shape. But with a weak out-of-conference schedule and just six Big East games at the Pavilion, Villanova could hardly afford this particular loss. One, or perhaps two, Pavilion losses were manageable, and they were allotted for Pittsburgh and/or Boston College and/or West Virginia. Everyone in the Wildcat community looked at this game, looked at the crowd that would be on hand for it, the ceremony, the weak Georgetown squad expected this season under the younger John Thompson, and BANKED on it as a victory. Villanova is now going to have beat someone really good (whether it be Kansas, or Syracuse, or Connecticut) to make up for this loss on its true home floor. The loss lowered the Wildcats to 9-3 overall, 2-2 Big East. To a degree, Villanova bought itself some breathing room with the surprising victory at Providence, where the Wildcats never win. But with the possibility of no emerging Jason Fraser for the next 3-6 weeks, Villanova's NCAA chances remain highly suspect after this loss. It was announced that Fraser will miss 3-6 weeks after breaking a bone in his hand against Providence. It remains to be seen if this will be a true 3-6 weeks or a Sumpter-knee-sprain 3-6 weeks, which turned out to be one week. So for all we know, Fraser might be back next week. Or not at all this year. Time will tell. (The sooner the better. 'Nova needs him in the paint. Bad.)

The Hoyas have been surprising this season. After loading up with their traditional creampuffs in December, Georgetown has now won at Pittsburgh, lost a close game to Connecticut, and won at the Pavilion in their first-ever trip there. The Hoyas are now 11-4 overall, 3-1 Big East. (They might be getting on the bubble soon, with a great loss to Illinois and a respectable loss to Temple also on the schedule).

There were two bright spots to the loss: the far more important one was the unexpected return of Curtis Sumpter, well ahead of schedule. Sumpter sprained his knee on Friday, January 7, while at Notre Dame as a result of a collision in practice. It was originally announced that he would be out 3-6 weeks, but clearly the injury didn't turn out to be as severe as was feared. And he not only came back, he was extraordinary. Braced to the hilt, Sumpter scored 14 points and grabbed seven boards in 34 minutes; other than the brace, he seemed none the worse for wear, especially when he blocked three Hoya shots, to the delight of the assembled crowd. The students serenaded him with chants of his name.

The other bright spot was Mike Nardi, who finally seems to have broken through on the offensive end, after struggling most of the season. The sophomore guard turned in a fine performance, scoring a dozen points while manning the point for 39 minutes. Under Nardi's superb direction, Villanova's turnover-prone offense coughed it up only eight times. Nardi himself dealt four assists against a single turnover.

Allan Ray scored a game-high 17 points, although he did it on abysmal 4-13 shooting and had to rely on going 8-9 from the line. For Georgetown, freshman forward Jeff Green was a highly formidable opponent, finishing with a double-double of 16 points and a dozen rebounds, tops for the Hoyas in both categories. (This guy seems to save it for tough opponents: he had 20 points against Illinois and a career-high 22 points against Connecticut).

Even leaving the 1985 hoopla aside, Villanova undoubtedly should have won this game. The Wildcats took control early and certainly conveyed the impression that the Washington, DC-based Hoyas would play the role of Washington Generals to the Wildcats' Globetrotters today. After trading baskets in the early going, Georgetown trailed just 20-18. However, the Wildcats sailed to a 33-20 lead, blasting the Hoyas with a 13-2 run which ended on a pair of free throws from Marcus Austin. The Wildcats took a 36-27 lead into the locker room, making way for the ceremonies honoring the 1985 team, and there was every indication that the lead would hold up. Sumpter's layup put 'Nova up by seven at 41-34, but Georgetown charged, tying the game at 46 with 11:50 to play. It took the Hoyas a while, but they took the lead finally at 57-56 on two free throws with 5:53 to go. Villanova would never see the lead again. The Wildcats forced ties, but never led after that point.

Neither team executed well in the final two minutes, and the score stayed locked on 63-62 GU after Ray hit two free throws with 2:32 to play. 'Nova missed THREE separate shots, all of which would have given them the lead, before Rayshawn Reed made one of two free throws with 14 seconds to play. On the ensuing possession, Sheridan dunked to tie it, and the crowd went ballistic - and was just as quickly deflated by subsequent events.

The Wildcats will try to rebound, when they visit Boston College on Wednesday. It will likely be Villanova's final visit to Conte Forum for many years, if not decades, in light of the acrimony surrounding BC's departure from the Big East after this season.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Wildcats Turn Over, Fry Friars in OT, 83-78, in Rare Victory @ Providence -Only Villanova's 2nd Victory in 15 Years

Injuries cut both ways. While Wildcat fans were mourning the loss of star Curtis Sumpter, who will miss 3-6 weeks due to a knee sprain, Providence was without the services of point guard Donnie McGrath, who had started 76 consecutive games, due to the flu. And it showed. Without McGrath, the PC offense fell ill as well, turning the ball over an astonishing 29 times. The miscues permitted Villanova to escape Friartown with a victory for only the second time in 15 seasons. The Wildcats triumphed 83-78 in overtime, behind a team-high 27 points from Allan Ray and a career-high 25 points from Jason Fraser.

These two teams were deemed sixth and seventh out of 12 teams in the preseason Big East coaches' poll. Tonight's evenly matched contest seemed to vindicate that prognostication. The Wildcats rebounded from Saturday's disappointing loss at Notre Dame and improved their record to 9-2 overall, 2-1 Big East. Providence, which is well on its way to the NIT, fell to 9-6 overall, 0-2 Big East. Despite the talent of Big East Preseason Player of the Year Ryan Gomes, the Friars' tournament chances are marred by a victory over non-Division I St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as home losses to Winthrop and Wichita State. They will need a strong, strong second-half showing to have a fighting chance at a bid.

For Providence, Gomes amply demonstrated why he received the preseason accolades. Making his 98th consecutive start for PC, Gomes finished with a season-high 28 points and also added 11 rebounds for a double-double, logging 44 minutes.

The game was not particularly well-played. As noted above, PC was atrocious in handling the basketball at both ends of the floor. Nonetheless, Villanova fell behind early, 10-0 and 18-7, and appeared to be on the immediate verge of its now-traditional annual disaster at Providence, a staple of the life of every Villanova fan each winter. Providence was poised to celebrate its 400th victory at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, nee Providence Civic Center. (Contrary to popular belief, 100 of those victories have not come at Villanova's expense. It just seems that way.) The Wildcats committed 17 turnovers of their own after some recent improvement in that department. Villanova built a modest lead in the second half, but Providence kept hanging around and the inevitable defeat seemed moments away. And it almost materialized. Fraser, who had an incredible game otherwise, nearly cost 'Nova the game with a disastrous blunder, when he gave the ball away at midcourt with about a minute to go, ultimately giving PC not one but two chances to win the game in regulation.

The Wildcats took 16 more field goal attempts than PC, but managed to win the game by just five points and also required overtime, thanks to 38% shooting from the floor and devastating PC defense. The Friars blocked a school-record SIXTEEN shots in this game, and it was just one short of the Big East record, set by the Georgetown team which had Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo in 1989. The primary author of this rampage of rejections was not 'Zo or Deke but the far less illustrious Herbert Hill, who had 15 points, 12 rebounds and an incredible NINE blocks. Hill is a 6-9 guy who averages less than 11 minutes a game, who averaged less than three minutes a game last year, and whom's Scouting Report describes honestly - if bluntly - as "a sparingly used forward". Thanks partially to Hill's heroics, PC also won the war of the glass, 41-35. The fact that a 6-9 sparingly-used PC bench player was able to have his record-setting way with 'Nova's big men in the paint is not a positive sign for the future.

In light of these problems, I was not relishing the prospect of trying to figure out whether Villanova had ever lost a game in which it had FORCED 29 or more turnovers (my off-the-cuff guess is that it would be unprecedented). So how did they do it? Fraser. Fraser, except for the aforementioned mistake, was simply awesome tonight. It wasn't just the career-high 25 points, eclipsing the 24 he scored against Loyola Marymount two years ago. He pulled down 13 rebounds, blocked two shots and gave Jay Wright 34 minutes in an extended game, when Sumpter wasn't available and a lot of players were stuck in foul trouble. Ray's 27 points carried the standard, but Fraser was invaluable. Randy Foye chipped in with a dozen points, while Kyle Lowry came off the bench to provide 29 badly needed minutes, seven points and five rebounds. Mike Nardi had a poor shooting night, making just one of nine shots, but did yeoman's work at the point, playing 43 minutes.

PC freshman DeShaun White was a teammate of Kyle Lowry's at Cardinal Dougherty High School in Philadelphia. According to PC, White boasts no fewer than three nicknames: D. White, Sean, and "Tree Shark". "Tree Shark" actually did some damage to Villanova's trees in the paint tonight, coming off the bench to score a dozen points in 24 minutes.

After the rough sledding in the early going, 'Nova had built a modest 37-36 lead at intermission. Villanova's lead peaked as high as nine, after Fraser completed a three-point play with 9:52 to play, but Providence rallied and got right back in the game, finally tying it at 68 on a shot by Gomes. Ray put 'Nova back up two with 1:10 to go, but White answered after Fraser's turnover to retie it at 70. Gomes had a shot to win it at the buzzer, but he thought the clock was running out faster than it actually was, and so he fired merely a desperation heave from well-behind the arc. Fortunately, Villanova took quick control in overtime, finishing PC off when Ray hit a triple with 44 seconds to go, putting the 'Cats up 79-73 (having much the same effect, ironically, as Chris Thomas' shot against the Wildcats on Saturday at Notre Dame).

Foye's Voyage: Foye entered tonight's game with 940 career points. After scoring a dozen tonight, he is at 952 points, 48 points shy of the milestone of 1,000, which Allan Ray attained in December. When Foye does so, he will be just the 47th Wildcat to join this club. He appears to be on pace to do it at one of Villanova's back-to-back Wachovia Center games against Kansas and Notre Dame in late January.

This is a very old rivalry, one of Villanova's oldest; dating back to 1936, this was the 79th meeting between the schools. Villanova now leads all-time 45-34, despite the last decade and a half of losses at Providence. VU is also 9-15 at the Dunkin' Donuts Center. The Friars will have their opportunity to avenge the loss on February 5, when they return to the Pavilion.

The Wildcats will return home to the Pavilion on Saturday for what will be a deeply, deeply, deeply emotional game for all Villanova fans - the contest commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1985 national championship team. Georgetown, the team's vaunted adversary on that magnificent April night, will be making its first-ever trip to the Pavilion to commemorate the special occasion.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Notre Dame Narrowly Knocks Off A Non-Sumpter Villanova Squad, 78-72, in South Bend

There were two major factors which contributed to Villanova's 78-72 defeat at the hands of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Indiana. One has been well-known to Wildcat fans for weeks - that as late as early January, the Wildcats had yet to leave the five-county metropolitan area to face an opponent. However, the second came in the last 24 hours, as a rude surprise both to Jay Wright and the Wildcat faithful: namely, the fact that leading scorer Curtis Sumpter would sprain his knee in a collision with Kyle Lowry in Friday's brief practice. Both of these unpleasant facts would directly lead to Villanova's first defeat in over a month.

In summary, the Wildcats were without their best player, and were facing a surprisingly large and spirited crowd on enemy territory at the Joyce Center with ND on break. And so perhaps it's not surprising that the Wildcats succumbed to just their second loss of the season, placing them at 8-2 overall, 1-1 Big East. Notre Dame improved to 10-2 overall, 2-0 Big East, after the only meeting between the schools this season.

This was one of those games where the whole really didn't add up to the sum of the parts. Notre Dame was ranked eighth nationally in defense - almost as good as the fourth-ranked Wildcats, as of games of Dec. 30 via But despite that formidable ND defense, most of the Wildcats turned in impressive statistical performances. Randy Foye stepped up his game in Sumpter's absence, scoring a career-high 26 points on 9-21 shooting and also collecting six rebounds. Will Sheridan also narrowly missed a double-double by finishing with nine points and 10 boards in only 28 minutes. Allan Ray struggled with foul trouble, logging an identical 28 minutes, but still reached double figures with 13 points (and in a statistical oddity for a guard, managed to finish the game without an assist OR a turnover). Mike Nardi followed up his superlative performance against West Virginia on Wednesday with another strong game, scoring 11 points and dealing six assists against only one turnover. Finally, Jason Fraser continued to dominate in the paint, made even more impressive by Sumpter's absence (Sumpter had been averaging nearly nine boards a game). Playing 30 minutes (he's played more than 30 minutes just 15 times in his career due to his plague of injuries), Fraser grabbed 10 rebounds and negatively influenced countless ND shots after swatting six of them. For good measure, he added five points. And as a team, Villanova committed just nine turnovers and outrebounded ND 42-33, even WITHOUT Sumpter's nine-a-game.

So, after reading all that, one would likely conclude that this was a happy-ending Villanova victory. After all, Villanova has been a defensive terror this year, right? Among the nation's leaders in defense, right?

Well, they HAD been. The Irish riddled the Villanova defense, scoring 78 points, more than any other opponent this season (the previous high was the 72 points scored by Albany, and excluding that game the next highest total was 64 against Penn). Notre Dame shot a sizzling 55% from three-point range (11-20), and the high number of threes, combined with a perfect 19-19 from the line (albeit something Villanova couldn't do anything about) explained the 78 points.

What is particularly galling about this loss is that it's a road game that with a little extra luck, they could have WON. Had they done so, the Wildcats could have markedly improved their national profile. At 9-1, 2-0 Big East, with a devastating victory over ranked West Virginia and a road victory against a solid ND squad , Villanova almost certainly would have received some Top 25 votes in the next poll - and now will have to put together another winning streak to do so.

For Notre Dame, Chris Thomas powered the team to victory. Playing all 40 minutes, Thomas scored 25 points, including a stake-through-the heart rainbow shot from the corner in the final minute that fatally sank any Villanova hopes of a comeback. He was also a perfect 3-3 from beyond the arc and 8-8 from the line. Colin Falls and Chris Quinn each scored 16 points while Dennis Latimore posted a double-double with a dozen points and 11 rebounds.

ND came out slugging, registering first-half shooting numbers that nearly mirrored their final totals, shooting 44% overall and 54% from beyond the arc. Often, Jay Wright has been able to successfully adjust at halftime, but it didn't work out today. Villanova's largest lead of the game came in the early going, taking a brief 16-10 lead, and the Irish eventually abandoned the full-court pressure they initially showed. But ND fought back with a 10-3 run that ended on a triple by Thomas, giving them a 20-19 edge. The Irish gradually increased their lead as the half progressed and took a 41-34 lead into the locker room. For 'Nova, Ray had 11 of his 13 points by halftime.

After play resumed, the teams basically traded baskets until Notre Dame was maintaining a 66-59 lead with 7:27 left. Then the Wildcats made their charge. An 8-0 run was capped by an incredible play by Fraser: he crushed one of Quinn's shots, grabbed the rebound with his left hand, and then fired an over-the-head, two-handed pass the length of the court (with the speed and accuracy of outfielder Vladimir Guerrero) to Nardi, who laid it in. Villanova had its first lead since 25-24, holding a 67-66 advantage with 4:05 to play.

Unfortunately, 'Nova went cold, quickly lost the lead, and remarkably, didn't even make it that exciting down the stretch. The game was tied at 70 as late as the 2:53 mark, but the Wildcats could only manage two points from Sheridan in the last 2:53, while giving up eight to ND - and that's a formula for disaster. The coup de grace came after Latimore had drained two free throws to put ND up 72-70. Nardi dribbled down the court and took an absurdly long three from the top of the key, which he missed and ND successfully rebounded (although in fairness to him, he had made that shot earlier in the game). ND was draining the clock on the next possession when Thomas was trapped by Nardi in the corner as the shot clock ran down, with about a minute to play . Thomas fired an earth-orbiting shot, which would have scraped the Golden Dome if the game had been outside - and somehow, it dropped at the buzzer. The Joyce Center crowd went crazy and Villanova's hopes were dashed, despite trailing just 74-70 with 57 seconds left. There was no drama from that moment.

Back in the days when Notre Dame was an independent, prior to 1995-96, Villanova/Notre Dame was an annual series from the 1970s to the early 1980s. Coach Digger Phelps, now the foil for Dick Vitale on ESPN's college basketball coverage, liked to bring the Irish into Philadelphia as often as possible, to play Villanova or La Salle at the Palestra. The series died in 1984, however, and didn't resume until Notre Dame joined the Big East in 1995-96. Remarkably, Villanova owned Notre Dame for many years after that happened. The Irish didn't win a Big East game against Villanova until 2004, losing eight straight contests - six of them by double-digit margins. But they've now beaten 'Nova twice in a row. Villanova now holds a slim 13-12 lead all-time.

Worth noting: In what undoubtedly warmed the hearts of Golden Domers far more than the basketball Irish's impressive victory this afternoon, New England Patriots assistant coach and ND football-coach-designate Charlie Weis addressed the Joyce Center crowd at halftime. (The Patriots are enjoying a bye weekend thanks to their outstanding regular season, leaving Weis free to concentrate on his future challenges, which are considerable.) His oration likely included a pledge to return to the football Irish to its former and increasingly distant glories, but undoubtedly did not invoke the names of such predecessors as Gerry Faust and Bob Davie...

With apologies to ESPN's Dan Patrick: Did You Know? One of the legendary Four Horsemen of Knute Rockne's Notre Dame in the 1920s, Harry Stuhldreher, later became the football coach at Villanova... Some former Villanova players were at the game, including most notably Tom Ingelsby, a star in the early 1970s (his son Martin played for ND several years ago).

Villanova will conclude this brief, two-game road trip, with a venture to Providence on Tuesday night, where they have historically struggled. It was not clear whether Sumpter will be available.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

What a '70s Show!!! - Villanova Wallops #21 West Virginia At Pavilion, 84-46

The Afros and leisure suits were out at the Pavilion last night, and the ESPN Classic crew opted to televise the game with 1979-era graphics. Even former long-time VU coach Rollie Massimino was there - but behind the bench, broadcasting the game, rather than in front of it, gesticulating to the officials. If there were any Main Line Rip Van Winkles out there, asleep after a quarter-century's nap, they could be forgiven for thinking they had just nodded off for a moment if they had come to the Pavilion last night. Accordingly, tonight's article will stay consistent with the theme:

On Wednesday night, Villanova took a giant step toward returning to the NCAA tournament, by walloping undefeated, #21 West Virginia, 84-46, in the Big East opener for both teams in "Turn Back the Clock Night" at the Pavilion. The Wildcats relied heavily on that one major post-1979 innovation, the three-point shot, in leveling the Mountaineers, connecting on 10 triples.

Villanova is now hotter than Studio 54 in its heyday, having won seven straight contests. The Wildcats are now 8-1 overall, 1-0 Big East. After experiencing a Three Mile Island-esque genuine meltdown, West Virginia dropped to 10-1 overall, 0-1 Big East.

Allan Ray hit the Mountaineers harder than Sugar Ray Leonard, dropping 26 points on 10-16 shooting, including five three-pointers. The most pleasant surprise came from Mike Nardi, who had been struggling with his shot all season. Nardi exploded for 18 points and canned four triples. Curtis Sumpter, ordinarily in the spotlight, took third place with "just" 13 points and seven rebounds. Randy Foye chipped in with 11 points and four assists. And Jason Fraser was a monster in the lane, pulling down nine boards and swatting three shots, in just 25 minutes of action. Finally, Kyle Lowry followed up his solid New Year's Eve debut with six points and six boards in just 19 minutes.

There really weren't any bright spots for West Virginia, but D'Or Fischer led the Mountaineers with 14 points.

The Wildcats' offensive statistics zoomed upwards as if it really WERE the era of sky-high inflation, as 'Nova hung 84 points on a Big East opponent, after a few days of hostile murmuring about Villanova's cupcake-laden December. The Wildcats shot 54% overall, and 42% from beyond the arc. It was an even more impressive feat in light of West Virginia's formidable defense. Prior to West Virginia's victory over fellow ranked team George Washington, the Mountaineers had yielded 55 or fewer points in their previous five games, including four occasions in which the opponents scored 48 or fewer.

West Virginia entered the night as one of just six undefeated teams remaining in Division I, with three of those coming from the Big East: aside from WVU- #9 Connecticut and Boston College, who played each other last night as well. But West Virginia's unblemished season record fell more swiftly than the Shah of Iran, as Villanova sprinted to a 36-16 lead at the 1:36 mark in the first half, culminating by an "and-one" from Sumpter. The Wildcats took a 38-18 advantage into the locker room and never looked back. The lead actually peaked at 41, when Baker Dunleavy scored in the final minute to give 'Nova a 84-43 lead.

It seemed only fitting that on 1979 night, West Virginia sank into a "malaise", to borrow a term President Jimmy Carter made famous in that era. The Mountaineers had made only 20% of their shots by halftime.

Villanova's defense was more tyrannical than J.R. Ewing, after a day when several oil gushers had run dry - and stingier than the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh. WVU had a potent offense thus far this year, averaging over 76 points a game. The 46 points tonight, matches the fewest Villanova has ever allowed in Big East play, in a conference which coincidentally dates back to 1979. The previous low had been 48 surrendered against Pittsburgh in 1983, a game markedly lacking both a shot clock and a three-point shot. In 2003 and 2002, Georgetown and Connecticut, respectively, both scored exactly 46 points in VICTORIES over Villanova. And the 38 point differential also represented the largest victory margin ever for 'Nova over a Big East opponent. West Virginia finished the game shooting a pitiful 27% from the floor and 20% from beyond the arc, and the numbers would have been even worse if the Mountaineers hadn't scored a meaningless three in the final seconds. WVU had ten turnovers in the first half alone, leading to ten Villanova points - a damning statistic when one considers that WVU averaged fewer than 10 turnovers a game entering the contest.

As for the inside game, I doubt that even Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins - whose famous backboard-shattering feat for the 76ers observed its silver anniversary just a couple of weeks ago - could have been effective in the paint for the Mountaineers tonight. Fraser had eight rebounds in the first half. And there were a lot of rebounds to get, as WVU was shooting just 22% nearly halfway through the second half.

On both ends of the court, the Mountaineers experienced an "energy crisis", of their own. At the same time, Villanova's performance continued to IMPROVE as the game went on, eventually reaching heights previously reserved solely for Barry Gibb's voice pitch.

Fortunately for Villanova, this game advanced their NCAA hopes considerably further, than it would have if the game had been played during the Carter administration. Back then, there were just 40 teams in the tournament, and a great regular-season performance did not mean as much without today's abundance of available at-large bids (there were just a handful then). Plus, the 2004-05 Wildcats don't have to worry about facing Magic Johnson's Michigan State or Larry Bird's Indiana State, who squared off in the 1979 national title game.

Worth noting: In 1979, Villanova meandered to a 15-13 record with the likes of Alex Bradley, Marty Caron, Tom Sienkiewicz, Rory Sparrow, and Aaron Howard. 'Nova was rebuilding, however, after an Elite Eight appearance the previous year. Jay Wright was a senior at Council Rock High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, playing point guard before leaving for Bucknell in the fall of 1979. And none of the current Wildcats had yet been born.

Around the 4 minute mark, the Pavilion crowd began chanting "Overrated". Undoubtedly, the outcome must have come as a profound shock to the WVU faithful. These have been some lean years for Mountaineer basketball. Before cracking the Top 25 this week, the Mountaineers hadn't been ranked since the conclusion of the 1997-98 season, when they finished ranked #23 after a Sweet 16 run and an upset victory over Temple. Although the Mountaineers haven't qualified for the NCAA tournament since that same year, 1998, they had generated a lot of under-the-radar buzz thanks to the early success. This was West Virginia's first 10-0 start since 1959-60, when Jerry West led the squad.

Looking back even further in history, Villanova now leads the all-time series against West Virginia, 19-14. The series actually dates back significantly further than 1979, going all the way back to 1955-56. As members of the Big East, Villanova now leads 10-5, since WVU left the Atlantic Ten in time for the 1995-96 season. WVU is now just 4-10 at Villanova. The Wildcats have done well in recent years, winning seven of the last ten contests.

Villanova will advance 25 years into the future as they prepare to clash with Notre Dame at South Bend, Indiana, on Saturday, in a game that will be televised in Philadelphia with normal graphics and presumably without Rollie's august presence.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Lowry Debuts as 2004 Ends, Wildcats Quell Quakers At Pavilion on New Year's Eve

Call it Jay Wright's New Year's Rockin' Eve. While Regis Philbin didn't grace the Pavilion with his presence, it was still a memorable end to the year. And on the day when the seemingly ageless Dick Clark remained on the DL, Kyle Lowry emerged from it. Lowry, who had been sidelined all year with a knee injury, came off the bench to score five points in 17 minutes - including an incredible layup while being fouled - helping Villanova roll to a 74-64 victory over the Penn Quakers at the Pavilion, where the Quakers have never gone home triumphant. Ironically, as 2004 came to an end, Lowry's Villanova career began - in a highly auspicious way.

It was a matinee game for the New Year's Eve crowd, with a 4 PM tipoff. Villanova also went this route two years ago, taking on Temple on New Year's Eve 2002 - and it worked, coming away with a 70-62 victory. It was Villanova's fifth-ever New Year's Eve game, and the Wildcats are now 4-1 on December 31 all-time.

Curtis Sumpter continued his powerful play. The junior forward rocked the house for 16 points and 13 boards, despite scuffling to a disastrous 3-11 shooting afternoon; his outstanding 9-10 performance from the foul line converted what could have been a disastrous day into just another full stat sheet for Sumpter. Randy Foye also struggled from the floor, going just 5-15, but still managed to score 15 points. Allan Ray also reached double figures with 14 points. Jason Fraser continued to contribute significantly, just missing a double-double by recording nine points and nine rebounds in just 18 minutes before fouling out. For Penn, Ibrahim Jaaber scored a game-high 22 points, with three other Quakers reaching double figures.

Success at the foul line was the key to the Wildcats' victory. Villanova went to the line a lot (38 attempts) and was very accurate (converting 28 of them, a formidable 74%). They also pummeled Penn on the glass, outrebounding the smaller Quakers by a 41-26 margin.

Villanova improved its record to 7-1 overall, and 2-1 in City Series competition. Unless Temple sweeps the Big Five (the Owls are currently 2-0 with games remaining against St. Joseph's and La Salle), Villanova can clinch at least a share of the Big Five title, by defeating St. Joseph's at the Palestra in January. It was sizzling 'Nova's sixth straight victory; the Wildcats have not lost since the Big Five Classic at the Palestra, when they fell to Temple on December 4. The Quakers dropped to 4-4 overall, 1-2 City Series. Rust may have played a role; the Quakers hadn't played since December 8, a very lengthy layoff.

Granted, it wasn't a typical Big Five game, and not just because it wasn't at the Palestra. These games, the really memorable ones, are the nailbiters that leave you marveling even years later about a last second shot that went in or not, and who shot it. This wasn't one of those games. Villanova never trailed in the contest, and while Penn made a spirited charge down the homestretch, there was a sense that the bigger and more talented Wildcats were not going to let this one slip away from them. After trading baskets in the early going, Villanova built a substantial, 36-25 lead by intermission, their largest lead of the half- and they were able to make it stand up. Villanova had 17 bench points and 7 second-chance points in the first half alone. And the Quakers, despite improved play, won the second half by just one point.

Villanova's lead peaked at 13 points, when Sumpter singlehandedly took over the game, scoring five straight points (a pair of free throws followed by a three-pointer) to increase 'Nova's lead to 52-39 with 11:05 remaining. The Quakers responded with a 12-4 run, making it interesting for a little while. Penn pulled to within 56-51 with 7:15 to go, after Jaaber stole the ball from Foye and laid it in.

Fortunately, Villanova counterattacked with a 7-0 run of its own, including five free throws. Just as quickly, the Quakers were back down 63-51 with just 5:38 to play and the Wildcats were firmly back in charge. Penn never drew closer than seven points away for the balance of the contest.

Villanova now leads the long series with its ancient rival by a margin of more than two to one, holding a commanding 35-17 advantage. The first game took place on January 7, 1922, in Villanova's second year of intercollegiate competition, with the Quakers winning 27-23. Surprisingly, the series then lay dormant for 34 years, until the Big Five was organized in the mid-1950s. The vast majority of these games, regardless of whom was formally the home team, have been at the Palestra; only in recent times has the game shifted elsewhere. This was only Penn's fifth visit to the Pavilion, and its first in the new millennium; the last game there was February 23, 1999, when a Howard Brown/John Celestand team kept its NCAA hopes (ultimately realized) alive with a hard-fought 73-63 victory.

Although Penn had won two of the last three games prior to this one, Villanova had dominated the series over the past generation. Since 1975, including today, Villanova has gone 21-5 against the Quakers and has also won seven of the last nine contests.

The Wildcats will open Big East play against West Virginia on January 5, on what is being billed as "Turn Back the Clock to the '70s Night". ESPN plans to broadcast the game with the graphics and overall tone of a 1979 broadcast, and former VU coach Rollie Massimino will call the game. It will complete a five-game Pavilion homestand for Villanova.