Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Dunleavy, #25 Wildcats Trample Bison of Bucknell, Coach Wright's Alma Mater

Providing an unexpected thrill to the Pavilion faithful, reserve Baker Dunleavy scored a career-high nine points, including back-to-back triples, and grabbed four boards in just seven minutes: the perfect exclamation point to #25 Villanova's near-perfect 89-51 trampling of the visiting Bison of Bucknell on Tuesday.

Yesterday, the news came that the Wildcats would remain in the prestigious Associated Press poll for the third consecutive week, although dropping from #22 to #25 after a highly unattractive home loss to #9 Syracuse on Saturday. (Unfortunately, the 'Cats dropped out of the less-important ESPN/USA Today poll, tumbling all the way to #30.)

In terms of victory margin this season, the Wildcats even surpassed the outstanding effort at Rutgers, where they thrashed the Scarlet Knights by 33 in RU's worst RAC loss ever - winning by 38 tonight. As a team, the Wildcats were awesome at virtually every aspect of the game. They shot a near-perfect 16-17 from the line (94%). They crushed the Bison on the glass, 37-23. They shot 52% from beyond the arc and held Bucknell to an anemic 18%, just 3-17. They clamped down vigorously on the Bison's leading scorer, Kevin Bettencourt, who came in averaging 14 points a contest and didn't even score, missing all seven of his field goal attempts. Bucknell coach Pat Flannery, with the score not being close, yielded quickly, using 13 players, with none seeing fewer than four minutes, and no starter playing more than 29 minutes.

For Bucknell, Chris McNaughton was the only bright spot. He scored on his first five shots and kept Bucknell in it briefly, with the score knotted at 17, before Villanova took firm control via a 18-2 run and easily pulled away; after the 'Cats made 21 of their first 33 shots, it was a laugher in the second half. McNaughton finished with 17 points on 8-13 shooting in only 26 minutes. Charles Lee was his only teammate to reach double figures, as he finished with 11.

The only fly in the ointment was an early injury to Randy Foye, which Villanova could ill-afford at this juncture in the season. Foye was attempting to convert a breakaway dunk, and while skying, he was fouled from behind by the aptly named Abe Badmus (sounds like a movie villain, and Badmus was dutifully booed for the rest of the game). Foye went down hard and play was halted for several minutes, while his injury was dealt with, and he was helped off the court by his teammates. The junior guard did not return to action. Preliminary reports were unclear as to the severity of the injury, whether Foye's absence was due to the injury or the lopsided score, and whether Foye would miss any future games. Meanwhile, an intrepid and courageous photographer at courtside snapped an incredibly vivid photograph of Foye in midair - complete with his OK-this-is-probably-gonna-hurt-when-I-come-down expression - which certainly deserves to be in Sports Illustrated next week. Try to find it online.

The Bison were a formidable opponent, owning wins AT Pittsburgh, AT St. Joseph's, and entering the game with an impressive 17-7 record. (The win against Pitt was Bucknell's first against any current Big East school since 1975.) But they were no match for the Wildcats, who rendered them virtually extinct, beginning midway through the first half. After leading by "only" 15 at intermission, the Wildcats literally doubled the Bison's scoring output in the second half, winning it by the remarkable score of 46-23.

Villanova finally completed nonconference play, finishing with a near-perfect 10-1 mark against non-Big East opponents; the only loss came to Temple, back on December 4 at the Palestra. The reasons for the impressive record: a soft December schedule, the absence of a holiday tournament, and its shocking upset of then-#2 Kansas. The victory also boosted its overall record to 15-6, as the Wildcats gear up for the stretch run in the Big East, where their record is just 5-5. Bucknell dropped to 17-8, as the second-place Bison continue to pursue Patriot League leader Holy Cross for the conference's single NCAA berth.

All of the dozen Wildcat players saw action in the uncompetitive contest, as no Wildcat played longer than 33 minutes. Allan Ray continued to excel, dropping a game-high 23 points on 7-15 shooting, including 4-7 from beyond the arc. Mike Nardi and Curtis Sumpter each finished with 14 points: Nardi took all nine of his shots from three-point range, connecting on four, and Sumpter added six rebounds.

The 'Cats will be playing a lot over the next few days, and with the outcome not in doubt, Coach Wright obviously opted to rest the starters and give the bench some badly needed minutes. For undoubtedly the first time, Dunleavy's nine points meant that he outscored both Randy Foye and Jason Fraser in a single game. Fraser came off the bench for another strong game, scoring seven points, grabbing eight boards and swatting two shots. Foye was limited to just three points in six minutes due to his injury. Chris Charles got some more time, logging eight good minutes in which he scored four points and collected four rebounds. Kyle Lowry took over most of his time, coming off the bench for 30 minutes of action, in which the freshman scored nine points, and also had seven assists and a pair of steals.

Jay Wright is an alumnus of Bucknell, the undoubted reason the Bison appeared on the schedule. It is unusual to face a minor-conference team this late in the season, and I speculate that difficulty in arranging a mutually acceptable date back in December, was the main reason why it was pushed forward so far. The series between the two Pennsylvania schools dates back far, to March 10, 1927, when the Wildcats hosted Bucknell and triumphed, 27-20. It was quite a competitive rivalry throughout the 1930's and '40s, with the teams meeting 17 times, but died abruptly after the 1947-48 season, well before Wright was born. The teams did not play again for over a half-century, until Wright took over at Villanova in 2001-02. Remarkably, tonight's 38-point margin victory was not the largest in series history; the series finale on February 27, 1948, featured a 80-41 Villanova victory - that was a lot of points for 1948, and Wildcat legend Paul Arizin probably scored a good number of them. The series was revived on December 1, 2001, with Villanova winning easily, 67-44- and again tonight, with another lopsided 'Nova victory. The Wildcats now lead all-time, 12-8. Wright played hoops at Bucknell for four years, including serving as co-captain as a senior in 1982-83, and he completed degrees in economics and sociology. Wright is now 3-0 against his alma mater, with two wins at Villanova and one at Hofstra.

(What Bucknell lacked on the floor, they made up for in interesting names. In addition to the aforementioned Abe Badmus, they also had a freshman named Rob Thomas (the same name as the one-time Santana collaborator/frontman in the band "matchbox twenty") who was reasonably "Smooth", as he scored five points in only seven minutes. Off the end of their bench, they also have Tarik Viaer-McClymont).

The Wildcats continue their busy week, in which they play four times in eight days, including a rare Thursday night contest. The next stop is a quick jaunt up the New Jersey Turnpike to face Seton Hall at the Meadowlands (Continental Airlines Arena), where the 'Cats haven't won since 1999, the last time they appeared in the NCAA tournament.

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