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.

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