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.

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