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 ESPN.com. 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.