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.

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