Friday, February 18, 2005

Sumpter Staves Off, Locks Out Pirates, As Villanova Sinks Seton Hall

The #25 Wildcats held off a second-half rally by Seton Hall, righting the ship quickly enough to sink the Seton Hall Pirates, by a comfortable 66-52 margin. Curtis Sumpter fired the critical shots which sunk the Pirate ship, singlehandedly halting their rally and finishing with 23 points and a formidable defensive performance as well, helping to force 23 Pirate turnovers.

The Wildcats lifted their record over .500 in Big East play, as they are now 6-5 with five games remaining, all of them potential losses other than the trip to St. John's. Their overall record is now 16-6, obviously good enough for the NIT even if they lose all their remaining games, but still not quite certain of a NCAA bid if they lose four of the last five and wind up at 7-9 in the conference (even at 8-8, they're not guaranteed a berth).

The Pirates, a Big East bottom-feeder this year, share their home floor with the NHL's New Jersey Devils, and for once the CAA's basketball court hasn't needed to be laden out over ice for every game, due to the ongoing NHL lockout. But their season is not looking particularly more lifelike than the Devils' right now, even after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman canceled whatever was left of this season on Wednesday. The Pirates have collectively walked the plank this season, dropping to 3-8 Big East, 11-11 overall. However, all Big East lower-echelon teams caught a break this year: since St. John's is ineligible for postseason play, they won't be participating in the Big East tournament. So, for the first time in many years nobody will stay home from Madison Square Garden other than them. Thus, the Pirates still have a remote chance of making the NCAAs by winning it. Nonetheless, even the lesser goal of qualifying for the NIT appears to be out of reach. They need to finish at least .500 or better and the odds of that don't look good right now, since the Pirates still must travel to the Pavilion, Boston College and West Virginia.

And that fact is as clear to the Seton Hall players and fans, as it is to any of us. The Pirates, by and large, played that sort of running-in-quicksand style of an overmatched team playing out the string, one that knows its season will evaporate as quickly as the melted snow come early March. It was a rare Thursday night contest, a night usually conceded by major-conferences (except the Pac-10), to the succulent allures of the TV networks' heavy ratings artillery.

And not without good reason, as tonight's game amply illustrated. The Continental Airlines Arena, nee Meadowlands, has always been too cavernous for the Pirates' small fan base. And on a Thursday night, during February sweeps-month, with the Pirates' season having foundered long ago - well, you do the math... Clearly, the Seton Hall faithful were more enamored of the blandishments of "Survivor"'s Jeff Probst, "The Apprentice"'s Donald Trump, and "The OC"'s Mischa Barton. Attendance was 9,611, not a few of whom were rooting for Villanova, which has a substantial fan and alumni base in North Jersey, obviously.

Seton Hall is arguably the weakest home court in the Big East, with only Georgetown as a potential competitor for that distinction. And surprisingly, this was Villanova's first victory at the Continental Airlines Arena, in a decade - Seton Hall had beaten Villanova six straight times there. The last Wildcats team to return home from the jaunt up the New Jersey Turnpike with a victory, was the 1994-95 squad, led by Kerry Kittles, Alvin Williams, and Jason Lawson. Ten years and six days ago tonight, February 11, 1995, they won there, 81-67. It is one of Villanova's oldest and most frequent rivalries, as tonight was the 93rd game in the series, which Villanova leads, 56-37. Seton Hall will travel to the Pavilion for a rematch on Wednesday, March 2.

Curtis Sumpter, was, in a word, awesome, just missing his career-high in points and canning four triples on six attempts. In addition to the offensive power, He was also a terror on defense, grabbing seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks as well, prior to fouling out with just under two minutes to play. Mike Nardi had a superb overall game, finishing with 10 points, five rebounds, three assists, and five steals, his effort marred only by four turnovers.

Of course, foremost on the minds of 'Nova fans was the appearance of Randy Foye, who left Tuesday night's annihilation of Bucknell early due to a hard foul from behind as he skyed for a dunk. Foye appeared to have suffered no ill effects from the injury, as he played quite well. He scored 10 points and had four assists and four rebounds, as well as two steals and a block. Foye did suffer the bad luck of colliding his head directly with Seton Hall's Kelly Whitney during the second half, as they both strove for a loose ball. But there didn't appear to be any adverse reaction from that one, either, as Foye logged 34 minutes. For Seton Hall, Andre Sweet came off the bench to score 13 points and pull down eight boards, while Kelly Whitney had 10 points and four rebounds in just 25 minutes. But they finished the game shooting just 33% from the floor and with only 52 points. It didn't help that J.R. Morris, the Pirates' third-highest scorer, was suspended, prior to the game, in order to fulfill academic requirements. He is not a star player, but Seton Hall was outgunned even with his presence and was that much weaker in his absence.

Villanova dominated play in the first half, due to forcing 16 Pirate turnovers. To put that in context: Seton Hall committed almost as many turnovers (16) as it had points (21) in the first half. It's actually quite amazing, that they were only down by a dozen at intermission, 33-21.

Villanova's second half lead expanded to 49-31, and the Wildcats appeared ready to go home and start getting ready for the huge week ahead. But then they went cold, and let the Pirates back in the game. The Wildcats missed a dozen consecutive shots, and suddenly Seton Hall was down just 49-43, a 12-0 run in less than a four minute span, culminating on a three-pointer by Justin Cerasoli. The small crowd was beginning to get involved. Fortunately, the Wildcats, led by Sumpter, quickly recovered and reasserted control. Sumpter then outscored Seton Hall 7-2 and the game was effectively over, with the 'Nova lead back to 56-45 with 5:22 to go. The Hall never got closer than eight the rest of the way, and the Wildcats' lead was in double-digits throughout the final three minutes, before finally winning by 14.

Poll Watch

With two blowout victories this week, the #25 Wildcats have already made a case for remaining in the AP poll, even if they lose to #17 Pittsburgh on Sunday, particularly if that game turns out to be a narrow defeat. Should they defeat the Panthers, though, they could expect to vault up a couple of spots.

Villanova will return home to the cozy Pavilion, for two critical contests against nationally ranked opponents over the next week. On Sunday afternoon, #17 Pittsburgh arrives at the Pavilion for the first time since 1999, when a jewel heist disrupted their roster, for an ABC game. Treacherous, #6 Boston College pulls in on Wednesday night.

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