Thursday, February 03, 2005

Facing UConn, Late T on Coach Jay Wright Ends Villanova's Night, 81-76

On Groundhog Night, it was determined that newly-#24 Villanova is condemned to suffer through six more weeks of excruciating waiting, to see if a NCAA bid is headed their way. This was partially due to a technical foul on coach Jay Wright in the waning seconds of the Wildcats' 81-76 loss at #23 Connecticut, the defending national champions.

In the 1993 film, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character is forced to relive a single identical day, interminably. A similar, though not identical, experience can be said of Villanova fans, when the Wildcats have taken on the Huskies during Wright's tenure. Villanova is now 1-7 against Connecticut, having lost three straight and never won outside of Philadelphia.

It was Jim Calhoun's 1000th game as a college coach over 33 years. It was Jay Wright's 322nd over 11 years. Calhoun has won two national championships. Jay Wright has never won a game in the NCAA tournament (he has made two appearances, both with Hofstra). Experience counts. And never did that fact show through more, than when Wright was hit with a devastating technical foul in the final minute, with 'Nova trailing just 75-72 and with possession of the ball, after a Huskies basket by Charlie Villanueva.

According to the Associated Press account, Wright "grabbed referee Doug Shows", thus giving Shows no discretion to avoid calling a technical foul in the final minute of a close game. The AP went on to say that Wright acknowledged his mistake afterward and assumed the blame for the blunder.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that Villanova would have won the game, if it hadn't been called. 'Nova still would have had to make a three-pointer and win in overtime. But prudence and wisdom would dictate that antagonizing an official in that situation, is at odds with everything Wright and his staff attempt to instill in the players about controlling one's emotions in the heat of battle.

We do know what happened, after all, with the technical foul being called. Any chance 'Nova had of winning was basically extinguished, as the Huskies' lead was extended to 77-72 with 31 seconds left, entirely altering the complexion of the game. Down five instead of three, 'Nova had to race down the court, fire a wild miss, and once the 'Cats failed to get the rebound, the game was effectively over.

Wright's ill-timed outburst unfortunately overshadowed an otherwise strong overall effort from Villanova on enemy territory. The Wildcats' three-game winning streak was snapped, as the 'Cats fell to 4-4 Big East, 12-5 overall. The Huskies rebounded from a tough loss to Notre Dame on Sunday, improving their season mark to 5-3 Big East, 13-5 overall; the Huskies had lost two of their last three. Expected to either win or come in second in conference play, Connecticut is in serious jeopardy of not even securing one of the byes in the Big East tournament.

Rank and File

Villanova was proudly sporting a national ranking for the first time since the end of the 1996-97 season, having been anointed #24 by the AP and #25 by the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll (generally the less reliable of the two, as the ballots are cast by harried, overworked assistants). The new ranking seemed to spell trouble for the Huskies, as Connecticut has struggled against ranked teams in recent days, having lost their last three contests against highly touted competition.

This was only the fifth occasion when Villanova and Connecticut have faced off when both teams have been ranked. All previous times came in the mid-'90s heyday for Villanova -1995-96- when the nucleus of Kerry Kittles, Jason Lawson, and Alvin Williams took on Huskies teams led by Ray Allen. When Villanova has been ranked, the Huskies have faced them eleven times, and have won on just four occasions, including tonight.

The next issue would be whether 'Nova can keep the ranking for more than a week. Obviously, if they lose to Providence on Saturday, they will be unceremoniously dumped as swiftly as they arrived. However, if they win convincingly - as they should - they have a fighting chance at staying in. It was a close loss to the defending national champions on the road.

Villanova played quite well: the Wildcats forced 18 Connecticut turnovers and coughed the ball up only nine times. The clear standout of tonight's game was Mike Nardi, who finished the game with a season-high 20 points on 7-13 shooting, including a career-best six triples. He ran the point well, finishing with five assists against a single turnover, and also had four steals. Allan Ray - the reigning Big East Player of the Week - continued his outstanding play, scoring 16 points (including four triples) and grabbing five rebounds. Randy Foye had an excellent all-around game, finishing with 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists. And Kyle Lowry came off the bench to key the offense, finishing with a dozen points and four rebounds.

The Huskies also relied on a well-balanced attack, with four players reaching double figures. Rashad Anderson scored 21 points to lead the team, including 9-10 from the foul line. Rudy Gay finished with 17 points and nine rebounds. The lefty guard Marcus Williams finished with a dozen points and nine assists. Denham Brown finished with ten points, while Josh Boone missed a double-double with eight points and nine boards.

Unfortunately, the Wildcats got little from their frontcourt tonight, the chief reason for their demise. Curtis Sumpter had probably his worst game of the season, finishing with four points, four rebounds, and four fouls: he played just 26 minutes. Jason Fraser played reasonably well coming off the bench, logging 24 minutes, scoring five points and collecting five rebounds. Chris Charles and Marcus Austin combined to play six minutes, failing to score and picking up a single rebound. Grand total: nine points, ten rebounds from the entire frontcourt. Tough to win that way.

Villanova eschewed an inside game in favor of raining down threes, and it almost worked. There was a huge disparity in fouls: the Huskies went to the line 42 times, making 30 (71%), while Villanova went to the line 10 times, making seven. The Huskies also won the battle of the glass, 38-30. However, Villanova took 75 field goal attempts to Connecticut's 43, with an even more imbalanced 32 three-point attempts to the Huskies' 12.

Villanova was well-poised throughout the contest to pull off the upset, and actually led narrowly at halftime, 40-38. The Wildcats led by as much as five in the second half, 50-45, at around the 14 minute mark. However, what would be the 'Cats' final lead came when Nardi drained a three with 9:26 to play, and it was erased momentarily.

Still, 'Nova still had the game deadlocked at 72 down the stretch, after a three from Ray with 2:35 to go. As it turned out, the Wildcats went cold at precisely the wrong time, managing to miss five consecutive shots in the final two minutes. They didn't start making them again until they were down 79-72, with just four seconds left and it no longer made any difference. With the game tied 72-72 in the final two minutes, the Wildcats yielded a 7-0 run (including the two points cost by Wright's technical) to the Huskies.

It may very well be Villanova's last loss at the hands of Calhoun. It was the teams' only meeting this season, and he has been widely mentioned in consideration for the Los Angeles Lakers job recently vacated by Rudy Tomjanovich. Last summer, the Lakers engaged in a highly conspicuous courtship of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, before Coach K rebuffed them to stay in Durham.

The Wildcats will return to action this weekend, against Providence at the Pavilion on Saturday night. It will be the Wildcats' first game there since the January 15 game against Georgetown, when the 1985 team was honored.

No comments: