Monday, February 21, 2005

#25 Wildcats Hang On By Claws,Top #17 Panthers

In an exhilarating contest, #25 Villanova survived a late charge by #17 Pittsburgh, to pull off an 80-72 victory at the sold-out, packed-to-the-rafters Pavilion Sunday afternoon, in front of ABC's cameras. Joyous students stormed the court afterward to celebrate the triumph.

Barring a complete collapse down the stretch, the victory all but assures that Villanova's name will be called - for the first time since 1999 - on Selection Sunday. Villanova now boasts a record of 7-5 Big East, 17-6 overall, and a RPI ranking of 19 prior to winning three games this week (and thus the rating will rise). All that is now needed should be two victories in their final four games, most likely against bottom-feeders Seton Hall and St. John's, and it's a done deal with a winning record in Big East play. (Villanova would have a fighting chance at a bid even if the Wildcats LOST every remaining game, including the first round in New York, at 17-11 overall, 7-9 Big East, because their RPI is so strong. But two more wins would render any doubt nonexistent.) The Wildcats won for the eighth time in their last 10 games, and are riding a crest of momentum into Wednesday's showdown with #6 Boston College at the Pavilion.

#17 Pittsburgh fell to 8-4 Big East, 18-5 overall, and with a much weaker RPI - 51. Nonetheless, it was wholly appropriate for the Villanova students to storm the court after the game. (And it provided great visuals for the news stations to use as a hook for viewers - "tremendous excitement on the Main Line, when we return..."). There have been precious few opportunities to do so over the last few years. Generally, as long as the team you beat is better than you are, and/or the game ends in exceptional fashion, and/or it's a key rivalry, it fits the moment. And Pitt, by any standard, is a higher-stature team than 'Nova - at the moment, at least, if not historically. They had a better record (both overall and in conference), a higher ranking, and far more success over the last three seasons. (There were a surprisingly high number of Pitt fans there, some sporting the old-school, puffy gold script "Pitt" shirts.)

ABC clearly thought very highly of the Villanova/Pittsburgh matchup, as today's Big East clash was the "true" national game. ABC had three games - Villanova/Pittsburgh, DePaul/Marquette, and Georgia Tech/Florida State. Obviously, Villanova/Pittsburgh went to the Northeast, DePaul/Marquette went to the Great Lakes states, and Georgia Tech/Florida State went to the South - but there was still the entire rest of the nation, everything west of Missouri. And ABC honored the Villanova/Pittsburgh game by sending it to ALL of those viewers, from Seattle to San Diego to San Antonio.

The game was well-played by both teams, and although it didn't come down to dueling buzzer-beaters, it was as memorable a contest as Villanova has recently played. The 'Cats fell behind early, fought back to tie it, surged ahead in the second half, seemingly had Pitt knocked out, leading by double-digits with five minutes to play. But then they had to withstand a heroic charge from the Panthers, who had the momentum going down the stretch and the advantage of facing a four-guard Villanova lineup thanks to the foulouts of Curtis Sumpter and Will Sheridan. And hang on the Wildcats did, securing the victory.

Allan Ray was once again outstanding, finishing with a game-high 23 points on 7-16 shooting, including 5-11 from beyond the arc. Ray's performance helped key the Wildcats' success in a critical area: three-point shooting. The Wildcats snowed in the Panthers like tonight's Philadelphia-area storm, finishing with a stellar 52% (12-23) from three-point range. And they smothered the Panthers in the same area, as Pitt managed just 31% (4-13).

Curtis Sumpter completed his day with 18 points, including three triples, before he unwisely fouled out with over three minutes to play - Sumpter was limited by his foul trouble to just 29 minutes. Randy Foye had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists for another fine performance. Mike Nardi had 13 points, including four three-pointers, to go with four rebounds and four assists, while logging a team-high 37 minutes (no other Wildcat had more than 29). Finally, Kyle Lowry came off the bench and was arguably the catalyst for victory, as good things always seemed to happen when he was on the floor. The cat-quick freshman weaved his way at will through the slow, plodding Pittsburgh defense, giving 'Nova the offensive spark it desperately needed with Sumpter on the bench. Lowry finished with seven points and four rebounds in just 22 minutes.

For Pittsburgh, Carl Krauser led the way with 16 points. The most memorable three of those came just before halftime, when he made a literal desperation heave which was not intended to score, but instead to draw a foul on whomever was covering him. Krauser was literally just over halfcourt when he threw a soaring ball in the air - and while he didn't draw the foul, it went in. The genuine star, though - in the first half, at any rate - was Aaron Gray, a 7-0 center who came off the bench to score a career-high 15 points, 12 of them in the first half, on 7-8 shooting, and did it all in just 15 minutes of action. Chris Taft also reached double figures with 11 points and eight rebounds.

Villanova snapped a three-game losing streak to the Panthers, and increased its narrow lead in the all-time series against Pittsburgh to 28-24. It was Pittsburgh's first visit to the Pavilion since January 19, 1999, when Villanova crushed an overmatched and depleted Panthers team, 86-65. That contest was chiefly notable for the Pitt players who engaged in a jewel robbery gone awry at the Radnor Hotel, where the team was staying. Then-coach Ralph Willard suspended the players involved, leaving just a skeleton team to face the 'Cats that night. Equally memorable was when the basketball gods turned the tables on that situation two years ago. The Wildcats were implicated in the phone-code-access scandal just before Pittsburgh's trip to the Wachovia Center at the end of the season. Jay Wright was permitted a skeleton crew to face the mighty Panthers on national television. But by playing Rollie-style, stallball the team came within a whisker of pulling off a stunning upset, finally succumbing 56-54.

The 80 points today were particularly impressive, since in each of Jay Wright's three previous losses to Pitt (he had never beaten them) the 'Cats had scored 59, 54, and 45 points respectively. However, it didn't look good in the early going. After VU took a 2-0 lead, the 'Cats wouldn't lead again until near the end of the half. Pitt took a 19-11 lead halfway through the opening session and was methodically grinding down the 'Cats, particularly in the interior. Villanova took the lead back for the first time at 32-31 in the final minute, and were poised to take a 34-33 into the locker room. But then Krauser made that incredible halfcourt shot, and Pitt had the all-important halftime lead at 36-34.

Gray had been flattening the 'Cats inside, with 12 points in 10 minutes. Whatever Jay Wright did at halftime to neutralize the guy, it worked. Gray was a nonfactor the rest of the way, scoring only three points in five minutes. Pitt had pushed its lead to 43-40 after a three-point play by Taft, but the Wildcats embarked on a 17-2 run, culminating in a Ray three to make it a 57-45 contest with just over 12 minutes to go. It was a stunning turn of events, and from that point forward the collective feeling in the Pavilion was transformed to "Can the 'Cats hang on?"

They almost didn't. The lead remained steady, and the Wildcats were in great shape after Foye buried a triple with just 5:41 to play, giving 'Nova a seemingly insurmountable 71-58 advantage. The crowd was really getting into it and the 'Cats had all the momentum. Then Pitt counterattacked. While 'Nova didn't score for over four minutes, missing eight shots, the Panthers reeled off 10 straight points, pulling to within 71-68 with two Krauser free throws with 1:38 to go. On that play, Sumpter fouled out, and since Will Sheridan had fouled out shortly before, 'Nova was running out of frontcourt players. Wright opted to go with four guards, plus Jason Fraser, the rest of the way, and it paid off. 'Nova made its free throws and Pitt never got any closer.

During the final minute, there were a lot of timeouts and fouls, giving the loud and raucous student section lots of opportunities to show off to the ABC cameras, a few brandishing "A" "B" "C" signs. The most unusual chant was probably "It's Only Pitt", and then followed by the standard "We Want" (in this case, BC, coming in Wednesday).

Poll Watch

After a sensational week, the Wildcats' poll numbers come Monday, will be the envy of every politician in America. Villanova's stock will skyrocket in both polls. The Wildcats entered the week #25 in the AP and unranked (#30) in the USA Today/ESPN poll. They certainly will return to the latter after the victory.

But how high? Well, the odious #25 Texas Tech Red Raiders, coached by Bob Knight, will probably be gone after sustaining a 29-point drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma State. #24 Florida had a loss to LSU and that's probably curtains for them, too. I would peg 'Nova as #24 ESPN.

As for the AP, it will likely be the same, as most of the teams ahead of Villanova, also won their games this week. The only exception was #22 Maryland, which had a tough week, getting crushed by 19 against NC State and then struggling to defeat Virginia by three. 'Nova could leapfrog the Terrapins.

So I speculate that 'Nova will be #24 in both polls tomorrow.

March Madness Monitor

I didn't want to jinx it by beginning this feature too early, but it appears safe to begin speculating about Villanova's destination, in the NCAA tournament field. Jerry Palm of, the leading bracketologist in the field, currently places the 'Cats as a #7 seed, facing #10 Miami (OH) in Nashville, Tenn. I think he's about right, although I'd put 'Nova as a #8 right now.

The Wildcats will have the chance to knock off a ranked team again come Wednesday, when the treacherous #6 Boston College Eagles swoop into the Pavilion for probably the last time, since they head to the ACC next year. BC has but one loss, and 'Nova nearly handed them a second one at Conte Forum earlier this year. To accommodate ESPN's cameras, the game's tip-off has been shifted from 7:30 to 9 PM, which will likely help Villanova by revving the crowd up even more.

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