It was Lincoln's Birthday, and to paraphrase the words of the great 16th President at Gettysburg: The world will little note nor long remember what basketball was played here. And for that fact #22 Villanova should be grateful - because it was a game that was horrible. For Villanova, at least. The 8th-ranked Orangemen played superbly and looked awesome, and for their plentiful fans, it was probably a tremendous experience.
The Wildcats turned in their worst performance - by a comfortable margin - of the season, as Syracuse breezed to a pitifully easy, 90-75 road victory over a ranked opponent at the sold-out Wachovia Center in South Philadelphia. Villanova's five previous losses this season had all come by six or fewer points. Today, they lost by 15, and it was a highly decisive 15-point loss, one that could easily have been by 20-25 points had Syracuse wanted it to be. The Orangemen led by as many as 24 in the second half and scored an appalling 26 second-chance points.
Lincoln also once famously remarked that "A house divided against itself, cannot stand." He was right almost 150 years ago, and he was right again today. The Wachovia Center, ostensibly Villanova's home floor, was unquestionably a house divided this afternoon. Many in the sold-out crowd had come to see two Syracuse players, Hakim Warrick (from Friends' Central in Philadelphia) and Gerry McNamara (from Scranton). They weren't disappointed. Warrick turned in one of his best performances ever at Syracuse, scoring a career-high 32 points, many on dunks, and collecting 12 rebounds in a sensational, dominant effort. Warrick's presence indicates why the Orangemen are a legitimate Final Four contender. And the legions of "McNamara's Band" - who came by the busload, 120 miles or so down the Northeast Extension - came away satisfied, too. Their hero scored 18 points and dealt seven assists. And senior Josh Pace exploded for 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
The combination of local heroes (or relatively local, at least), surprisingly balmy February weather, and recent Villanova success meant that the Center was sold out for a Wildcats home game for the first time since the 1996-97 season, the inaugural year for the building. The last sellout had come in February of that year, when a packed house had seen Villanova turn away Notre Dame. It's just a shame that the Wildcats couldn't take advantage of that rarest of all phenomena - a potential home court advantage in South Philadelphia.
The Orangemen boosted their record to 9-2 Big East, 22-3 overall, and continued to make a potential case for a #1 seed, if they win the Big East regular season title and/or tournament. Coach Jim Boeheim now needs just two wins to reach the storied 700-victory plateau, all at Syracuse, where he will have 24 NCAA appearances in 29 seasons, including this year. (Worth noting: His 100th career victory came against Rollie Massimino's Wildcats during the 1979-80 season.) The Wildcats fell to 5-5 Big East, 14-6 overall, and remain on the NCAA bubble, although barring a complete collapse down the stretch, the 'Cats will probably make it for the first time since 1999.
It was Syracuse's sixth victory in the last eight contests against 'Nova. Syracuse loves the atmosphere at the Wachovia Center, as the Orangemen are now 4-1 there, their only loss coming on February 27, 2002. The Orangemen now own a 32-23 advantage over the Wildcats in a series which dates back to 1946, although the teams - surprisingly - met only three times prior to the formation of the Big East.
Probably the most significant statistical achievement for the Wildcats today was that two players - Randy Foye and Curtis Sumpter - managed to foul out, and three others finished with four. This was a consequence both of Villanova's miserable overall performance and Jay Wright's inexplicable decision to fight to the death, including ordering fouls with less than fewer than 30 seconds to play, and exhausting all of his timeouts in a game that was over halfway in the first half.
Foye led the team with a respectable 18 points on 6-14 shooting, but the ordinarily skilled rebounder didn't grab a single board. Curtis Sumpter scored 13 points on 5-11 shooting. Mike Nardi added some garbage-time points to finish in double figures with 11, on 4-13 shooting. After scoring six points in the early going, Allan Ray scored just six more the whole rest of the way to finish with a dozen on identical 4-13 shooting.
Ray opened the game by hitting two NBA-range triples for 'Nova's first six points and only lead of the game, 3-0. But the contest went swiftly downhill from there, from a Villanova perspective. After the final tie, at 20, Syracuse took firm control of the game with a 21-5 run halfway through the first half and never looked back. Villanova never drew closer than double digits the rest of the way, playing in a state of torpor.
Syracuse played the entire game in its signature defensive set, the boring 2-3 zone perfected by Boeheim over 698 victories. The Wildcats looked befuddled throughout the contest, bearing an eerie similarity to the befuddlement suffered by Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid in last Sunday's Super Bowl, and for largely the same reasons. Villanova scuffled to a 40% shooting percentage, a total which also improved due to 'Nova's garbage-time baskets, and finished the game just 31% from beyond the arc. And even when there weren't any Orange defenders, it didn't matter. The Wildcats shot a dismal 52% from the line, far worse than normal, and in a close game might have made the difference between victory and defeat.
In contrast, Syracuse cruised, shooting 57% from the floor. The Orange, which had been badly outrebounded in their last three contests, also dominated the glass, winning 42-34.
Gerry Mac effectively ended the game at the 13:34 mark with an absurdly athletic play, drawing Foye in the air and looping the ball in for an and-one. He followed it up at 12:50 with a 3 pointer, and his not scarce orange-clad partisans from Scranton cheered lustily. (He was removed ceremoniously with 1:01 to play amid great applause.)
At 9:04, Warrick put in a sick reverse dunk while barely noticing the gallant efforts of Sumpter to defend him, boosting the lead to 65-45 and leading to another Villanova timeout. Warrick gesticulated joyously to his many orange-clad fans in the meantime. He repeated the feat at 7:55, making it 69-45, although no Wildcat suffered a similar indignity of being dunked over.
The stretch run was uneventful except for disqualifications. Sumpter fouled out with 2:26 to go, finishing with 13 points. With 1:57 to go, Syracuse's Craig Forth fouled out after a monster defensive performance, finishing with 8 points, 10 boards, two blocks and a steal. (Although it was almost worth it to hear the PA announcer have to tread carefully around the potentially Abbott-and-Costello-esque fourth-foul-on-Forth.)
Poll Watch: This depends. At #22, with a decent road victory at crosstown rival St. Joseph's on Monday and a "good" loss (at least in the rankings) to Syracuse, the Wildcats could easily stay in, particularly if other teams on the cusp don't do well this weekend. I would bet that the 'Cats will stay in the AP poll at least; in the less-reliable ESPN/USA Today poll, they are just #25 and might drop out.
Celebrity sightings: Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (D) emerged from his post-Super Bowl mourning long enough to take in the action. As did New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards, a permanent figure in Philadelphia sporting annals due to the "Miracle at the Meadowlands" in 1978, when then-Eagle cornerback Edwards scooped up a Joe Pisarcik fumble and streaked into the end zone for a shocking victory over the New York Giants. 17 NBA scouts also joined the action, as did former Syracuse standout Billy Owens. Ironically, Owens was there to witness Warrick knock him off SU's all-time Top 10 scoring list; Warrick now has 1,862 points (9th) to Erich Santifer's 1,845 (10th) and Owens' 1,840 (11th).
One of the few positive aspects of today's debacle, was that at least the Wildcats won't have to play Syracuse twice this season. The Wildcats also played marginally better in the second half than in the first. The 'Cats shot just 8-18 from the line in the first half and were outscored 11-5 on second-chance points (although that would later balloon to 26 at the end). They also shot just 31% from the floor while yielding 63%, both numbers which improved slightly as the game progressed (if "progressed" isn't too strong a word to use for a game like this. It progressed, in the sense that every second that ticked by made it closer to being over.)
Fortunately, the Wildcats will have an opportunity to quickly forget about this disaster. Jay Wright's alma mater, the Bucknell Bison, will thunder into the Pavilion on Tuesday night. It will not be a typical Big East/Patriot League massacre, as the Bison are possibly headed to the NCAA tournament with an automatic bid, and they boast a 16-7 record.