Thursday, February 24, 2005

#23 Wildcats Avenge Defeat Against Treacherous #3 BC

#23 Villanova bade a fond, fitting farewell to treacherous Big East rival Boston College, late Wednesday night, stunning the #3 Eagles, 76-70, in BC's likely final visit to the Pavilion. Jubilant students stormed the court for the second time in four days, as the victory removed any lingering doubts that the 'Cats will return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.

It was a stirring end to an old rivalry, as BC and Villanova have played each other every year since the 1968-69 season. Villanova's record now stands at 8-5 Big East, 18-6 overall, with regular season games remaining at Georgetown and St. John's, as well as Senior Night against Seton Hall. They could easily afford to lose them all, be KO'd in the first round of the Big East tournament, and still relax on Selection Sunday. 'Nova now owns wins over #2 Kansas, #3 BC, and #17 Pittsburgh, and is assured of a .500 record in Big East play. It's over. (It was probably over before tonight, but it's 100% over now.) Villanova will be in the field of 65 come mid-March by a country mile.

The Eagles entered play tonight with a 22-1 record overall, 13-1 Big East. They are ranked 5th in the RPI ratings and #3 by the Associated Press, and are shooting for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, where they hope to be assigned to nearby Worcester, Massachusetts, for the first two rounds. They now drop to 22-2 overall, 13-2 Big East, and will no longer be ranked #3 come next Monday.

The victory was even more impressive, because the Wildcats were without the considerable services of Mike Nardi, who sprained his ankle in practice on Monday. He warmed up, but did not see action. And Curtis Sumpter was not 100% either, throughout the contest. After rocking the Pavilion in trademark style during the first few minutes, he was involved in a collision which sent him to the locker room during the first half. Although he returned immediately, Sumpter limped noticeably for much of the evening.

As a team, Villanova shot extremely well from beyond the arc, finishing at 47%, one of the three keys to the victory. The others were outstanding free throw shooting and dominating the glass. The Wildcats finished the game at 88% (36-41) from the line, while outrebounding BC 32-22.

Randy Foye carried the Wildcats, scoring 23 points, grabbing five rebounds and dealing four assists, while playing 38 minutes. Sumpter, despite the bad leg, had no statistical erosion: 20 points, eight rebounds, and three steals. (Imagine if he had been healthy...) And the most important player to the 'Cats tonight was Kyle Lowry, pressed into immediate service at the point due to Nardi's injury. The freshman played 39 minutes, scoring 11 points, grabbing five rebounds, dishing three assists, making three steals, and shooting 8-10 from the line.

Coach Jay Wright's hands were tied by his limited bench options and the injuries. He used only seven players, including Marcus Austin, who played only five minutes - in which he didn't score or collect a rebound. Jason Fraser came off the bench for an effective 27 minutes, scoring nine points and pulling down eight rebounds, while blocking a pair of BC shots.

The 'Cats also were reasonably effective in containing Jared Dudley, who had shelled them at Conte Forum, finishing with a career-high 36 points and singlehandedly winning the game. Dudley finished with 15 points and six rebounds, a solid performance but not quite enough to send BC home with yet another victory. He also struggled from the floor, making just four of his 11 field goal attempts. Craig Smith scored 18 points and also had half a dozen rebounds for the Eagles.

The game had an inauspicious start. The crowd was rocking and rolling with anticipation, but BC swiftly took the fans out of the game by scoring the first seven points. Sumpter answered the call, however, and got 'Nova back into it - and then he got hurt.

Sumpter entered play tonight with 993 career points, needing just seven to become the third Wildcat to reach the millennial milestone this season. He achieved it early in the first half, and it was a good thing, too - as the collision over a loose ball happened right afterward. Classmates Allan Ray and Randy Foye also attained the milestone earlier this season. (By the way, nobody else will be hitting it for a while. Mike Nardi is only a sophomore, and Jason Fraser is only around 500 points or so).

What would, shockingly, be BC's last lead of the contest came with over 11 minutes to play in the first half, after Jermaine Watson hit a pair of free throws to give BC a 18-16 advantage. The score was later deadlocked at 27, when the Eagles went cold. 'Nova ripped off a dozen straight points to go up 39-27, and then basically hung on for dear life for the rest of the game. Wright, playing not only with a lead but with one key player injured and another now banged up, wisely opted for stall-ball, taking long possessions. The 'Cats managed to take a 43-36 advantage into the locker room, thanks largely to their 70% shooting from beyond the arc. However, eight of BC's 22 wins this season had come, after they had trailed at halftime.

'Nova enjoyed a double-digit lead for most of the first nine minutes of the second half. But then BC made its charge, after Villanova had pulled to a 61-49 lead with 12:21 to play after free throws from Lowry and Allan Ray. It was the Wildcats' turn to go cold, as 'Nova didn't score another basket until there were less than four minutes to play (overall, a nine-minute, plus span between field goals). In the meantime, Dudley had completed the 15-3 run by cutting 'Nova's lead to one at 65-64 with just over four minutes left. The crowd was quite nervous, remembering what had happened at Conte Forum in January.

But hang on the 'Cats did. The central play came with the 'Cats desperately clinging to a 70-68 lead with about a minute to play and fervently wishing that the game would hurry up and end. 'Nova ran down the shot clock, and Foye made an incredible shot in which he skyed the ball, it hit the top of the backboard, and dropped in. After a brief conference by the officials, they correctly ruled that the ball was in play, as it hit the front of the top, and they counted the basket to put 'Nova up 72-68. The play deflated BC and they never got any closer after that. The Wildcats made seven of eight free throws down the stretch, and outhustled BC for the loose balls, and fortunately, it was enough to win.

Villanova had dropped a heartbreaking 67-66 loss at Conte Forum on January 19, in which the 'Cats ceded a 66-63 lead in the final minute. BC's Jared Dudley had an incredible night, finishing with a career-high 36 points, including 4-5 from the line in the final minute to lift the Eagles to victory and sustain their then-undefeated season.

Until tonight, the Eagles' sole loss this season was a 68-65 loss at Notre Dame on February 8. Even more impressively, BC entered tonight having won 30 of its last 32 regular-season contests, dating back to a home victory over Notre Dame on February 4, 2004. Overall since that point, they were 33-4. When BC won its first nine Big East games, it set a school record for the best start in BE play.

Sights and Sounds

It was among the most rollicking atmospheres in Pavilion history. The late tip-time of 9 PM helped undoubtedly, giving the students more time to party. Everyone was already in an exuberant mood after the upset of #17 Pittsburgh on Sunday. National television on ESPN2 meant that there were lots of signs, and the student section was packed to the brim. Some sign samples (and this is a small list):

Sign of the Year:

A large rollout during the second half which read:

"Benedict Arnold: BC Class of 1763"

(Historical note: Kudos to the intelligent Villanova students who created that sign: as it turns out, the infamous, traitorous Revolutionary War general was in fact born in 1741. And in New England, actually - Norwich, Connecticut.)

Second Place:

Jayhawk logo, Eagle logo, caption: " 'Nova - Two Birds, One Stone"

Tied for Third Place:

"(E)ven (S)kinner (P)icks ('N)ova (2)Night"
"Foy(E) + Fra(S)er + Sum(P)ter + Alla(N) Ray = (2)nd Loss"

To future Wildcats: "Gerald + Wayne - 'Nova Wants You" featuring Uncle Sam

"BC Students are (E)gotistical (S)nobby (P)retentious (N)erds"
"BC: Before Christ - Jesus Is On Our Side"

Two female students were wearing T-shirts reading on the back, respectively: "I Party With Nardi" and "K. Lo's Ho".

Probably the most unusual incident of the game, from a fan's perspective, came late in the first half. The non-student sections are notorious, obviously, for not cheering. However, a fellow about a dozen rows off the floor, sitting in the last seat, closest to the student section, began cheering, dancing, and gesticulating to the student section. He was dressed in what appeared to be a referee's shirt, although it seemed to have dark blue stripes rather than black. He drew the student section's attention with his antics, and they began an impromptu serenade in return, chanting, "That guy's awesome!"

When you come right down to it, about the only thing that went wrong tonight was the fact that simultaneously (and rather inconsiderately!) the 76ers decided to make national news by trading for Chris Webber tonight, thus stealing some of 'Nova's well-deserved thunder in the local media and also bumping 'Nova off the lead story on "SportsCenter". (The trade ironically included former 2001 'Nova standout Michael Bradley, who had an All-American season the only year he played here). This was doubly unfortunate, since the Eagles' Super Bowl appearance had consumed most of the ink through most of 'Nova's stellar season thus far.

Poll Watch

The Wildcats jumped two spots in the Associated Press poll, improving from #25 to #23 on Monday. The Wildcats also returned to the ESPN/USA Today poll, at #24, after being unranked last week.

The Wildcats will travel to Washington, DC, on Sunday to take on the resurgent Georgetown Hoyas at the MCI Center. The game was once meaningful for the Wildcats, but now is primarily about Big East and NCAA tournament seeding.

The imminent departure of Boston College for the ACC, next season, and the acrimony which surrounded their October 2003 decision, likely means (although not necessarily 100% certain) that BC has made its final trip to the Pavilion, for the foreseeable future Which is a shame, given that the schools often compete for the same students and it is a natural Northeastern rivalry. Here's a look back at a rivalry which ended all too soon:

Villanova began its basketball program in 1920-21, but surprisingly, BC did not appear on its schedule until a quarter of a century later, in 1946. On January 10 of that year, 'Nova won the first-ever meeting, traveling to BC and defeating the hosts by a 38-34 margin. Four years later, in 1950, BC traveled to the Palestra and topped 'Nova 64-61. But that was BC's last victory for many years. The schools faced each other sporadically over the next two decades, with the Wildcats winning 13 straight, most of the games being at the Palestra.

Beginning in the 1968-69 season, the teams faced each other annually, which they have done to the present day. The series evened out some during the 1970s and early 1980s, but beginning in 1986, Villanova began to dominate it again. The Wildcats won 13 out of 14 contest from BC from 1986-92. During the transition from Rollie to Steve Lappas, BC started winning, taking five straight, before the pendulum swung again and Kerry Kittles-led teams began crushing BC. 'Nova won seven straight before BC triumphed in the BE tournament final in 1997. In the early 2000s, BC improved, taking six straight from the 'Cats.

Entering tonight, Villanova led the all-time series by a resounding 51-23 margin, but just 20-15 as members of the Big East, in regular season play. The teams met six times in the Big East tournament, splitting the games.

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