Saturday, March 12, 2005

#4 Villanova Falls to #8 West Virginia in Big East Tournament Semifinals

To the Wildcat faithful-

Perhaps Villanova's most impressive statistic this year is the absence of blowout losses, as all but one of their six previous defeats this year has been by fewer than six points. But unfortunately another one got added to the list tonight. Villanova fell to white-hot West Virginia in the semifinals, 78-76, as WVU's Mike Gansey hit two free throws with 0.2 seconds to play.

West Virginia avenged the shocking demolition Villanova administered at the Pavilion on January 5, when the Wildcats - on "Turn Back the Clock Night" leveled the Mountaineers by a 84-48 margin, for then nationally-ranked WVU's first loss, after a 10-0 start. Never in BE history has a team lost by such a wide margin, and then beaten that team in the conference tournament. Until tonight.

Let's get the troublesome ending out of the way first, before we deal with anything else. WVU had the final possession after Foye's drive in the lane knotted the score at 76. An absurdly long three-ball was launched by Patrick Beilein, from well beyond NBA range. So far in fact, that it was air-balled, and the "rebound" dropped directly to Gansey. Gansey had a one-foot shot, and Allan Ray wisely (whether by accident or design) fouled him to prevent him from converting it, with 0.2 to play. Gansey made both free throws, and Villanova's desperation heave was of no avail. Game over: Mountaineers keep going, 'Nova's bid for greatness (at least within the Big East conference) denied.

First, it was obvious that the guy WAS fouled. At this level, players very rarely miss undefended one-footers unless they are, and the replays clearly showed Ray making contact with him. To those who would say that "the players should decide the game," it is impossible for that to happen unless the officials enforce the rules evenhandedly. A foul shouldn't be any less likely to be called solely because it's the last play of the game. Also, it wasn't a marginal foul call - it was an indisputable foul call. Basically, it's bad luck that WVU airballed that shot and it went right to him - and that's part of the game. It certainly wasn't the fault of the official that 'Nova lost tonight.

A better place to look for a culprit for 'Nova's defeat, was the backboard glass at the World's Most Famous Arena. The Wildcats were hammered on the boards, 34-21, and particularly badly on the offensive end, as the Mountaineers grabbed 13 to 'Nova's five. That's what made the difference tonight - especially WVU's final offensive rebound, which became the winning points at the foul line from Gansey. Plus, Villanova was dreadful at guarding the perimeter, as West Virginia strafed 'Nova with 13-25 shooting from beyond the arc. What made it worse was the fact that WVU was generally missing a key player, Tyrone Salley, who was plagued with a stomach ailment and didn't play much (10 minutes and no points).

Villanova was stymied in its bid to reach the Big East tournament final for the first time since 1997: the Wildcats have won the tournament only once, in 1995. Many, many 'Nova fans made the trip to MSG for this game, hoping to see the Wildcats do it again. They were quite vocal in their support tonight. West Virginia reached the finals for the first time, since the school joined the Big East for the 1995-96 season. WVU has had a long record of futility in the Big East tournament, since joining the conference, they had only one win in this tournament prior to this season - over Seton Hall in 1997. (They had won one game in nine years and now they have three in 2005. Go figure...)

The Mountaineers will try to pull a third straight upset by defeating Syracuse Saturday night. They are also attempting to become the first Big East team to win the conference title, by winning four games in four days; only twice before has any team even reached the final by winning three games, the last time being Pittsburgh in 2001. Nor has any #8 seed ever won the tournament.

It was Villanova's first loss to WVU in BE tournament play in three meetings; Villanova won in 1999 and 2001. The loss snapped Villanova's eight-game winning streak, and so 'Nova completed its regular season with an outstanding 22-7 record, ranked #19 by the AP and #21 by ESPN/USA Today. It marked the finest season 'Nova has had in eight seasons. West Virginia improved to 22-9 heading into Saturday night's championship game.

Both teams are assured of NCAA bids, though, and both will be appearing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in the 21st century. The Mountaineers were perched squarely on the bubble entering the tournament on Wednesday, finishing at .500 in conference play at 8-8, and hoping that two wins over Pittsburgh would be enough to squeeze it in to the Big Dance. But West Virginia played itself into the tournament this week with victories over Providence, top-seeded Boston College, and Villanova. It will be the Mountaineers' first bid since 1998, when they upset then-formidable Temple to reach the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, the Wildcats - having been assured of a bid since February - merely wait to hear their destination come Sunday.

Randy Foye was spectacular in a losing cause; Foye ended his night with 22 points, five rebounds and four assists while playing all but one minute of the contest. Allan Ray added 17 points on 5-10 shooting. Curtis Sumpter responded well after being shut down in the first half with zero points and a single rebound; Sumpter roared back with 13 points and four rebounds after intermission, and also added three blocks over the course of the evening. And Kyle Lowry once again was the spark off the bench, scoring 10 points and grabbing three rebounds in just 18 minutes of action.

For West Virginia, Gansey set a new career-high just one day after his previous one, when he scored 21 against BC, finishing with 22 points and adding 10 rebounds for a double-double. But it was a balanced effort from the Mountaineers, as five players finished in double figures: Kevin Pittsnogle (18 points and five boards in just 22 minutes, including three triples), Frank Young (12 points), Joe Herber (11 points), and Jarmon Durisseau-Collins (10 points and six assists). D'Or Fischer, the Philadelphian, played 15 minutes and scored two points.

Villanova did manage an early lead, jumping out to a 23-13 advantage. Nonetheless, West Virginia started raining down the threes, blasting out a 29-8 run and took the lead, 42-31. At halftime, with 'Nova trailing 42-35, Sumpter had no points and one rebound. WVU was 8-14 from beyond the arc and had outrebounded AND outassisted 'Nova substantially.

'Nova made a 10-0 run early in the second half to tie the game. Later on, Kyle Lowry laid it in while being fouled, sprinting down the floor weaving through traffic to put 'Nova up for the first time in a while - or so it seemed. During a long timeout, the officials conferred and withdrew a point from Sumpter's three, making it a two - and then Lowry missed the free throw, and 'Nova was only tied at 64 with about seven minutes left.

WVU then scored five quick points to go up 69-64. Gansey converted an and-one to go into the under-4 timeout, putting WVU up 71-65. Gansey missed the free throw but WVU rebounded. 'Nova forced a shot-clock violation, reclaiming the ball at 3:03. Bang. Nardi for 3 - 71-68. With 1:54 to play, Fraser slipped in for a dunk (he wasn't covered!) and VU called timeout down 73-70. (At this point, VU's pep band began playing "The Impression that I Get", recorded by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in 1997, a point which I bring up here, solely because I meant to praise them for it earlier this season, because they perform an awesome rendition of it.) WVU missed, but rebounded, and while trapped, called timeout with 1:23 to go.

But 'Nova rallied, keyed by a dunk from Foye and a jumper from Sumpter, and finally Foye's jumper to tie it with 10 seconds to go, setting up the previously described ending.

Well, let's look at the silver lining. This game was for glory and NCAA seeding. Victory, while it would have been better than gutwrenching defeat, was not necessary for a NCAA bid. Or for that matter, increased security of a NCAA bid. No, no, no. That bid has been signed, sealed and delivered since either Feb. 20 or Feb. 23, when Villanova beat Pittsburgh and Boston College in a radiant four-day span at the Pavilion, possibly the most radiant 96 hours in the building's history.

So let's turn to Jerry Palm, the RPI guru for more on that. As Palm explained last week, it is unlikely that Villanova will benefit from being sent to Worcester for its first two games. The top two BE teams will likely go there, most likely Boston College and either Syracuse or Connecticut. Seeding is still up in the air. According to Palm, prior to the Big East tournament,

"As for seeding prospects, teams in that part of the bracket are in a pretty fluid situation. I could see them as a 4 if they won the whole thing, and as low as an 8. It's a wide range, and I think they'll be in the higher end of it, but just about anything is possible."

Palm also allayed the Villanova community's fears about a potential return engagement with Old Dominion in the first round (ODU stunned 'Nova, as a #14 seed, in triple overtime in the first round of the 1995 tournament.) The boards had lit up when Palm had issued a theoretical bracket last week showing the teams meeting again this season. Palm noted:

"The committee tries to avoid rematches from last year's tournament for the first two rounds this year. They do not always succeed at that. I guarantee you the VU-ODU game from 1995 won't enter anybody's mind when they do the bracket. They don't have time to think about stuff like that. I didn't think of it either when I did mine."

So let's forget about tonight's defeat. Let's look forward to a brilliant new future - Villanova in its first NCAA tournament of the new millennium. Selection Sunday, 6:30 PM, we'll know where 'Nova goes. (Pray for Tucson for the sake of the traveling party and the many 'Nova fans who will likely accompany them.)

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