Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Donovan Who? Villanova Wins Holy War LXII, Stopping St. Joe's at Pavilion

Donovan Who? Less than 24 hours after the Eagles' demise in Super Bowl XXXIX, the #22 Wildcats were making their case as an alternative for grieving Philly-area fans, hanging on at the historic Palestra for an ugly 67-52 victory over St. Joseph's in Holy War LXII.

It was the 62nd meeting in the Holy War, a series which dates all the way back to Villanova's first season, 1920-21, and it was Villanova's 39th victory in it. Granted, it did not feature Charlie Daniels, Alicia Keys, Sir Paul McCartney, two former Presidents, VU alumnus Howie Long, or Freddie "The Sultan of Slot" Mitchell. (Come to think of it, Sunday night's spectacle almost didn't feature Mitchell, either. But that's another story.) It did not attract 86.1 million viewers on ESPN2.

But there were some plus sides as well. You didn't have to pay $5,000 to see it, or fly to northeastern Florida, and there was surprisingly balmy February weather in Philadelphia. The Palestra was packed. There were no drunken hordes of Eagles fans, chanting six particular letters incessantly. And in many ways, it was morbidly entertaining.

But most importantly, compared to Super Bowl XXXIX, it had a much more satisfying ending. Villanova snapped a two-game losing skid to its crosstown rival, in a contest which was once again part of ESPN's "Rivalry Week" promotion and aired nationally on ESPN2 for the fourth consecutive season. Villanova completed Big Five play with an impressive 3-1 record, and improved its overall mark to 14-5. St. Joseph's, just a year removed from a #1 national ranking and 4-0 City Series sweep, fell to 1-2 City Series and 11-9 overall. As a result, the Hawks are likely headed to the NIT come March unless they win the Atlantic 10 tournament.

The Wildcats now have a great chance at winning or sharing the Big Five crown thanks to their three wins. At this point, it's all in the hands of Temple, currently 2-0 and the only city team to defeat the Wildcats. If the Owls defeat both St. Joseph's and La Salle, they win the title outright; if they split, the Owls and Wildcats share the crown; if they lose both, Villanova captures it.

Jason Fraser was the clear-cut star of the game for Villanova, coming off the bench to score 14 points, grab 14 rebounds, and block two shots in 29 minutes of action, despite still playing with a heavily bandaged hand. Curtis Sumpter scored a team-high 15 points on 6-13 shooting and had seven rebounds to go with them. Allan Ray added 14 points and five assists, while Randy Foye narrowly missed a double-double with 13 points and nine rebounds (albeit on dreadful 3-15 shooting).

For St. Joseph's, Pat Carroll ended up as one of the two highest scorers of the game, despite missing his first 13 shots. Carroll finished with 16 points and nine rebounds, but did so on horrible 4-19 shooting from the floor. Chet Stachitas was the only other Hawk that managed to score more than five points; he matched Carroll's 16. Four different Hawks each ended up with five points.

Nobody would confuse this game, with one that was well-played, as the teams combined to commit 44 personal fouls, 22 each.. Particularly in the second half, it seemed impossible to go longer than a minute without a whistle. There was nothing wrong with the officiating, it was just an ugly game with a lot of bricks, producing short rebounds with tussling under the hoop - and consequently, many fouls called. Will Sheridan fouled out with over seven minutes to go, playing just seven minutes and failing to score. Of Villanova's seven key players, only Kyle Lowry finished with less than three fouls.

The Hawks were hopelessly inept in the first half, scoring just 16 points and finishing the half shooting a pitiful 16% from the floor. Not from beyond the arc, from the FLOOR - they had just four field goals on 25 attempts, and as noted above, Carroll, their best player, missed his first 13 shots. 'Nova easily built a 25-16 lead at the break.

Villanova seemed on the verge of a blowout, similar to the 2002 game at the Pavilion when the Wildcats handed the Hawks a historic 102-73 defeat. The Wildcats padded their lead to 34-16 shortly after intermission, and then increased it to 41-20 on a layup by Ray, in what would be their largest lead of the game. The Hawks and their fans, were as deflated as the Eagles and their fans, around 10 PM Sunday night.

The Hawks, however, did make the game unpleasantly interesting as the second half continued. The largely pro-SJU crowd, which had sat on its hands for most of the game as the Hawks missed shot after shot, began to assert itself. After trailing by 21, SJU actually carved the deficit down to eight in less than five minutes. Carroll hit a three-pointer and two free throws and reduced the 'Nova lead to just 47-39 with 7:02 to play. It might not sound that impressive, but SJU had been playing in quicksand for the entire game up until that point and was having to move boulders just to score. The Hawks had only 20 points with less than 13 minutes to play in the GAME, up until that point, and then they scored 17 in less than five minutes.

It was quite hot in the Palestra, due to the unseasonably warm temperatures and the large crowd. And soon the volume began to match the temperature. The fans, which were about 80% for SJU, began to roar as if the Hawks were AHEAD. A visitor who had just walked in at that moment, would never have believed that the home team was eight points down. Or that they had been abysmal, for the vast majority of the game. The parity-inducing, upset-minded ghosts of the Palestra's glorious past appeared ready to awaken, and potentially destroy Villanova's tournament hopes with a stunning loss after being up by 21 in the second half. (Villanova has benefited from them, before, of course, but this time the Wildcats were expected to win and so it was best that they stay quiet.)

Fortunately, the Wildcats quelled the uprising, pulling away after letting the Hawks hang around for another minute or so. Over the next six minutes, Villanova went on a 14-4 run, and suddenly the Hawk fans found themselves looking up at the wrong end of a 61-44 reading on those awesome, old-school black scoreboards at either end of the building. The Hawk fans made for the exits - it was over.

Probably the most entertaining event of the contest took place during that span. During one of the timeouts, both sets of cheerleaders came out to do the "hold-the-cheerleader-up" competition. In the meantime, the Hawk and Wildcat began a beak-to-whiskers confrontation. After the two mascots ended their mock battle, the cheerleaders for both sides were still up. Then the players from both teams emerged from the timeout and tried to resume play. Still up. Finally, the officials had to intervene and ask that the cheerleaders voluntarily stand down so that the game could continue. The VU cheerleaders immediately complied, but the SJU crowd mistakenly thought that they had actually won the competition and began cheering again in raucous fashion.

I thought that there would be a certain quiescence to the crowd, almost like a coma, after the painful loss on Sunday. Essentially, that it would be a wake, but one that just happened to have 9,000 visitors all come at once, dressed not in dark suits, but in varying shades of crimson, navy blue, and midnight green.

But the crowd was more spirited than I had expected, after the Super Bowl outcome. Of course, I thought that many fans would come dressed in Eagles gear, as a final gesture of defiance, but midnight green/silver/black attire was surprisingly minimal. One fan chose to represent, by displaying both loyalties - he appeared in a Villanova #20 Brian Westbrook jersey, to honor 'Nova's favorite Eagle. Phil Martelli and Jay Wright, both Philadelphia natives and Eagles fans, had reportedly agreed not to practice on Sunday, so that everyone on both sides could enjoy the game in peace.

Another pleasant aspect of the timing of this game, was that the Philadelphia media - engorged for two full weeks in the round-the-clock Eagles coverage, flying to Jacksonville, and trying to read T.O.'s X-rays - had literally no opportunity to criticize Villanova for its collective sins in the usual pre-Holy War fashion.

But unlike the media, the fans weren't at all quiet, on either side. The Hawk fans also brought no fewer than six rollouts; their offerings were:

"Jay Wright: Best Dressed Coach in the NIT" In another difference between the Super Bowl and tonight's Holy War, it is unthinkable that the dapper Villanova coach would ever suffer a "wardrobe malfunction" of any kind.

"Rocky VI: Starring Kyle Lowry" Lowry was ejected, for firing a left jab to Kansas Jayhawk Jeff Hawkins in the glorious annihilation of then-#2, undefeated Kansas two weeks ago, and served a mandatory one-game suspension.

"Nova's Still Hiding Osama" At the last Palestra game, two years ago, the Hawk fans had suggested that Villanova was harboring the fugitive al-Qaida leader, somewhere on campus. Tonight, the 20% Villanova portion of the crowd chanted, "U-S-A", in response.

"Rollie, Lappas, DuPont - 'Nova Legends"

This was a bit puzzling, as it's tough to see how bringing up Rollie's name would be much of an insult. The genuinely legendary Roland V. Massimino won 357 games at Villanova, including a national championship, five Elite Eights, 11 NCAA bids and 20 tournament victories from 1973-1992. Daddy Mass also beat St. Joe's regularly, as Villanova won 12 out of 18 meetings with the Hawks during his 19 years at the helm. (Granted, the vast majority of those wins came before current SJU students were born.) And even the much-maligned Steve Lappas, now at Massachusetts, went 4-2 against SJU while he was here. (For those of you who did not arrive on campus till after the Clinton era, the final name is a reference to one John Eleuthere DuPont. He was a bizarre millionaire, the wealthy, murderous, military-tank-riding, former namesake of the Pavilion, who made Howard Hughes look like an easygoing, relaxed fellow, when it came to keeping the germs away and enjoying life. In 1996, DuPont attained infamy for killing a former U.S. Olympian on his Pennsylvania estate, leading to the removal of his name from the Pavilion in 1997.)

"One Team, One Coach, One Week in the Top 25" For those of you who have moved out of town, a reference to the Eagles' ubiquitous "One" slogan - "One Team, One City, One Dream"- for the ill-fated Super Bowl. It is already out-of-date, as the AP actually saw fit to ELEVATE Villanova to #22, from #24, despite just a 1-1 week.

and the standard "The Hawk Will Never Die".

Another sign attempted to get the network's attention with "(E)very (S)nob (P)lays (for) ('N)ova."

Of course, there were some diehard references to the events of the previous night in Jacksonville. During the halfcourt shooting contest, the SJU student was given three tries at the goal, and the guy came pretty close on the first two, hitting the rim twice. Prior to his third attempt, he ostentatiously stood on the ball with one foot at center court and paid homage to Terrell Owens, flapping his arms like an Eagle (as opposed to a Hawk) to the loud approval of the crowd. The SJU band, after the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt, played "Fly, Eagles, Fly".

And naturally, this game will always be remembered by Philadelphia fans, as "The Game After the Super Bowl"; it won't be remembered as a classic for the 44 fouls or the lackluster final four minutes.

After two games in three days, the Wildcats will enjoy some time off, before facing #8 Syracuse at the Wachovia Center on Saturday. It was bad luck that Syracuse had a tough loss to #19 Connecticut tonight, and will likely be looking to take it out on someone.

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