Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Wildcats Turn Over, Fry Friars in OT, 83-78, in Rare Victory @ Providence -Only Villanova's 2nd Victory in 15 Years

Injuries cut both ways. While Wildcat fans were mourning the loss of star Curtis Sumpter, who will miss 3-6 weeks due to a knee sprain, Providence was without the services of point guard Donnie McGrath, who had started 76 consecutive games, due to the flu. And it showed. Without McGrath, the PC offense fell ill as well, turning the ball over an astonishing 29 times. The miscues permitted Villanova to escape Friartown with a victory for only the second time in 15 seasons. The Wildcats triumphed 83-78 in overtime, behind a team-high 27 points from Allan Ray and a career-high 25 points from Jason Fraser.

These two teams were deemed sixth and seventh out of 12 teams in the preseason Big East coaches' poll. Tonight's evenly matched contest seemed to vindicate that prognostication. The Wildcats rebounded from Saturday's disappointing loss at Notre Dame and improved their record to 9-2 overall, 2-1 Big East. Providence, which is well on its way to the NIT, fell to 9-6 overall, 0-2 Big East. Despite the talent of Big East Preseason Player of the Year Ryan Gomes, the Friars' tournament chances are marred by a victory over non-Division I St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as home losses to Winthrop and Wichita State. They will need a strong, strong second-half showing to have a fighting chance at a bid.

For Providence, Gomes amply demonstrated why he received the preseason accolades. Making his 98th consecutive start for PC, Gomes finished with a season-high 28 points and also added 11 rebounds for a double-double, logging 44 minutes.

The game was not particularly well-played. As noted above, PC was atrocious in handling the basketball at both ends of the floor. Nonetheless, Villanova fell behind early, 10-0 and 18-7, and appeared to be on the immediate verge of its now-traditional annual disaster at Providence, a staple of the life of every Villanova fan each winter. Providence was poised to celebrate its 400th victory at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, nee Providence Civic Center. (Contrary to popular belief, 100 of those victories have not come at Villanova's expense. It just seems that way.) The Wildcats committed 17 turnovers of their own after some recent improvement in that department. Villanova built a modest lead in the second half, but Providence kept hanging around and the inevitable defeat seemed moments away. And it almost materialized. Fraser, who had an incredible game otherwise, nearly cost 'Nova the game with a disastrous blunder, when he gave the ball away at midcourt with about a minute to go, ultimately giving PC not one but two chances to win the game in regulation.

The Wildcats took 16 more field goal attempts than PC, but managed to win the game by just five points and also required overtime, thanks to 38% shooting from the floor and devastating PC defense. The Friars blocked a school-record SIXTEEN shots in this game, and it was just one short of the Big East record, set by the Georgetown team which had Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo in 1989. The primary author of this rampage of rejections was not 'Zo or Deke but the far less illustrious Herbert Hill, who had 15 points, 12 rebounds and an incredible NINE blocks. Hill is a 6-9 guy who averages less than 11 minutes a game, who averaged less than three minutes a game last year, and whom's Scouting Report describes honestly - if bluntly - as "a sparingly used forward". Thanks partially to Hill's heroics, PC also won the war of the glass, 41-35. The fact that a 6-9 sparingly-used PC bench player was able to have his record-setting way with 'Nova's big men in the paint is not a positive sign for the future.

In light of these problems, I was not relishing the prospect of trying to figure out whether Villanova had ever lost a game in which it had FORCED 29 or more turnovers (my off-the-cuff guess is that it would be unprecedented). So how did they do it? Fraser. Fraser, except for the aforementioned mistake, was simply awesome tonight. It wasn't just the career-high 25 points, eclipsing the 24 he scored against Loyola Marymount two years ago. He pulled down 13 rebounds, blocked two shots and gave Jay Wright 34 minutes in an extended game, when Sumpter wasn't available and a lot of players were stuck in foul trouble. Ray's 27 points carried the standard, but Fraser was invaluable. Randy Foye chipped in with a dozen points, while Kyle Lowry came off the bench to provide 29 badly needed minutes, seven points and five rebounds. Mike Nardi had a poor shooting night, making just one of nine shots, but did yeoman's work at the point, playing 43 minutes.

PC freshman DeShaun White was a teammate of Kyle Lowry's at Cardinal Dougherty High School in Philadelphia. According to PC, White boasts no fewer than three nicknames: D. White, Sean, and "Tree Shark". "Tree Shark" actually did some damage to Villanova's trees in the paint tonight, coming off the bench to score a dozen points in 24 minutes.

After the rough sledding in the early going, 'Nova had built a modest 37-36 lead at intermission. Villanova's lead peaked as high as nine, after Fraser completed a three-point play with 9:52 to play, but Providence rallied and got right back in the game, finally tying it at 68 on a shot by Gomes. Ray put 'Nova back up two with 1:10 to go, but White answered after Fraser's turnover to retie it at 70. Gomes had a shot to win it at the buzzer, but he thought the clock was running out faster than it actually was, and so he fired merely a desperation heave from well-behind the arc. Fortunately, Villanova took quick control in overtime, finishing PC off when Ray hit a triple with 44 seconds to go, putting the 'Cats up 79-73 (having much the same effect, ironically, as Chris Thomas' shot against the Wildcats on Saturday at Notre Dame).

Foye's Voyage: Foye entered tonight's game with 940 career points. After scoring a dozen tonight, he is at 952 points, 48 points shy of the milestone of 1,000, which Allan Ray attained in December. When Foye does so, he will be just the 47th Wildcat to join this club. He appears to be on pace to do it at one of Villanova's back-to-back Wachovia Center games against Kansas and Notre Dame in late January.

This is a very old rivalry, one of Villanova's oldest; dating back to 1936, this was the 79th meeting between the schools. Villanova now leads all-time 45-34, despite the last decade and a half of losses at Providence. VU is also 9-15 at the Dunkin' Donuts Center. The Friars will have their opportunity to avenge the loss on February 5, when they return to the Pavilion.

The Wildcats will return home to the Pavilion on Saturday for what will be a deeply, deeply, deeply emotional game for all Villanova fans - the contest commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1985 national championship team. Georgetown, the team's vaunted adversary on that magnificent April night, will be making its first-ever trip to the Pavilion to commemorate the special occasion.

No comments: