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.

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