Friday, March 11, 2005

#4 Villanova Pounds #5 Pitt in Big East Tournament

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Get out of the way, Big East. The Villanova locomotive roared into Penn Station and easily ran over the formidable roadblock of the Pittsburgh Panthers, winning 67-58- in a contest that was never really in doubt after the first few minutes. The Wildcats' eighth straight victory, they have a great chance to win the whole thing after #8 WVU, their next opponent, upset top-seed BC earlier.

Villanova now advances to Friday night's semifinal game against #7 West Virginia. Villanova won the only meeting between the two teams, on Jan. 5 at the Pavilion, "Turn Back the Clock Night". 'Nova annihilated then-#23, then unbeaten, West Virginia, 84-46.

Villanova, ranked #19 by the AP and now 22-6 overall, continued its remarkable dominance of Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament. Villanova is now 6-1 against the Panthers in it, tying an identical 6-1 mark against Providence for the two best records against current Big East members. Or to put it in a less favorable light, 'Nova is 12-2 against Pitt and Providence - but 15-21 against EVERYONE else. (Villanova's success against Providence is equally odd because 'Nova is notorious, until this year, for never winning AT Providence, so why they would be so successful on a neutral floor...) The last time the teams met in the Big East tournament was on March 8, 2000, with Villanova topping Pitt, 65-55.

Unfortunately for Villanova, Providence has already cleaned out their lockers and is looking ahead to 2005-06, after being flattened by WVU in the first round. Instead, the Wildcats have the privilege of facing the Mountaineers, against whom they are 2-0. The last time they faced them was in 2001, winning 82-71 (as it turned out, former coach Steve Lappas's final victory at Villanova) in the first round. In 1999, they also won 73-61.

It was a thudding end to the Big East campaign for Pittsburgh, ranked #22 AP and with a record of 20-8. Pitt had appeared in the last four Big East tournament finals, winning in 2003. Today, they're going home after the quarterfinals. The reasons were quite clear. Pitt shot 35% from the floor, a season low, and scored only 58 points, the second-lowest total of the season. They also shot 18% from beyond the arc and committed 17 turnovers. (That's why it's amazing that Pitt only lost this game by nine points. They did outrebound 'Nova 38-26, the one area that was a bright spot.)

'Nova won the only regular-season meeting 80-72, on February 20 at the Pavilion in front of a national TV audience on ABC. The victory meant that 'Nova will finish 2-0 against Pitt for a season for the first time since 1995-96.

Randy Foye finished with 23 points to lead the Wildcats, including five rebounds, a perfect 9-9 from the line, and playing all 40 minutes. Allan Ray scored 18 points, while Curtis Sumpter added 17. For Pitt, Carl Krauser led with 18 points and nine rebounds (and six turnovers), and Chris Taft contributed 10 points and six boards.

It's entirely possible that the drastically raised stakes, triggered by BC's sudden departure, contributed to the slow start to the game, for both Villanova and Pitt. Each team missed its first four shots, and nobody scored at all until CS hit 2 FTs at 17:19. Troutman hit 2 FTs at 17:03. 'Nova then missed two more by Sheridan, going 0-6. Pitt missed again: 0-5. Pitt got another free throw but still no basket.

At 16:14, Ray hit a layup to put 'Nova up 4-3. Carl Krauser finally laid it in for Pitt's first field goal around the 16:00 mark, up 5-4.

During the first eight minutes, Pitt was dreadful. The Panthers missed nine of their ten shots, committed six fouls and six turnovers, yet trailed just 13-6 at the under 12-timeout at 11:38.

At the under 8 timeout, it was still low-scoring. Villanova led 18-14, with 7:50 to play, but neither team was shooting well (a combined 11-34, 33% for Pitt 5-15 , 31% for 'Nova, 6-19.)

Eventually, this deteriorated further to 5-20 Pitt, 6-21 'nova. VU led only 19-16, with 4:44 to go, before Nardi hit 2 FTs to make it 21-16. At 3:55, tenth turnover by Pitt (travel) triggered the under 4 minute timeout. Pitt had scraped together only 16 points with 2:56 to go, when Troutman was fouled by Sumpter (his 2nd). Troutman made 1-2 FTs and it was 23-17.

Graves picked up his 3rd foul on, giving an and-one from Ray, 26-17, but Will Sheridan picked up his third foul on the next possession. But 'Nova started to pull away at this point, taking a 31-18 lead after 3 from Ray, triggering a Pitt timeout with 1:17 left. Krauser drew a block from Ray, getting just 1-2 FTs, and so Villanova led 31-19 with 21.2 to go, and Coach Jay Wright called his use-it-or-lose it timeout. 'Nova failed to score, though, and so that was the score at halftime.

Pitt had no FG in the last 8:43 of the half, and shot 20% from the floor in the half: 5-25 FG%, including 0-5 from three-point range. Oddly enough, at halftime there was just one assist for Villanova, against three for Pitt. But the Panthers were still not out of it, down only 31-19. In the first game, BC had trailed by 25 in the second half, but came back to scare WVU down the stretch. 'Nova did have decent halftime numbers: 4-14 three-point FG%, 9-11 FT, and 10-6 advantage in turnovers. Pitt in contrast had shot just 9-16 from the line.

In retrospect, the game was really over at halftime. 'Nova's grip on the game was never really endangered in the second half. There are certain games when one gets the sense that the trailing team will make a run, and this was emphatically NOT one of those games. Pitt turned in a rather miserable performance today. The Villanova lead peaked at 17, about five minutes in, after three free throws from Ray made it 40-23. But the Wildcats maintained a comfortable cushion throughout the half. Pitt never got closer than eight, and 'Nova led by as many as 16 with just under four minutes left.

So, thanks to WVU's upset, the Wildcats get to keep the white jerseys for another game. 'Nova is in the semifinals now for the second straight year after an impressive three-game run last year, ultimately falling to UConn in the semis. They play at 7 PM Friday night. With BC out, Villanova now has arguably the easiest path left of any of the surviving four teams. As a result, the Wildcats might very well win the tournament for only the second time in school history, and the first since 1995.

Big East Tournament Flashback

In 1998, the Wildcats struggled to a 12-17 record after losing three players (Tim Thomas, Alvin Williams and Jason Lawson) to the NBA, and with only Zeffy Penn (back from a tactical redshirt season) as a senior. There was really only one bright spot that year...

Villanova ended up #7 in the then-13 team conference with an 8-10 record, and drew #10 Pittsburgh in the first round. (The top three drew byes.) At the time, as difficult as this is to believe for those of you who began following college basketball around the turn of the millennium, the Panthers were dreadful, one of the doormats of the Big East. After scuffling through most of the game, the Wildcats ended up in double overtime.

At the end of the second overtime, Howard Brown rebounded a missed Pitt foul shot that would have put the Panthers ahead. Brown sprinted out to the top of the key at the other end, and calmly drained a three at the buzzer to win it for the 'Cats, 96-93. It remains to this day one of the most thrilling endings to any game, Villanova or otherwise, I've ever seen. I can still picture that shot as if it happened yesterday. At the time, a friend suggested that I tone down my enthusiasm, noting that this was merely "a double overtime victory against Pitt", at the time not a terribly impressive feat. Still, it was awesome, one of the greatest Villanova victories EVER (at least for the ending, if not the quality of the opponent!). A game like that - it's unfortunate that it had to come at the end of such a mediocre season, for it isn't remembered. Had the game happened en route to a Villanova Big East tournament title, it would be remembered for decades. (As it turned out, the Wildcats ended up losing a hard-fought battle to Syracuse in the quarterfinals, dropping a 69-66 decision, ending their season.)

"Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble..."

The three Big East teams which entered Wednesday's tournament on the bubble had three markedly different fates.

West Virginia assured itself of a bid by ousting odious top seed Boston College in the first game. The Mountaineers nearly busted the game open, leading by 22 at halftime, and building the aforementioned 25 point lead early in the second half. BC got as close as four, though, down the stretch, and the outcome was not a foregone conclusion. But hang on the Mountaineers did, buoyed the chants of "A-C-C", from all the non-BC fans at Madison Square Garden. It was Boston College's final game as members of the illustrious Big East Conference and a more fitting ending - an embarrassing quarterfinal loss to a #7 seed - could not be created. I would give credit to whomever first dubbed Boston College "Fredo", (from the Godfather movies) if I knew who it was. Well, anyway, today was officially the day Fredo got into the boat on Lake Tahoe and slept with the ACC fishes. ("Hail Mary, full of grace...") :)

Well, this year "ND" stands for "Not Dancing". The Irish imploded against woeful Rutgers on Wednesday night, finishing off their previously strong NCAA chances with a loss to a 9-18 team. They head to the NIT.

Georgetown is a tougher case. They did the absolute minimum by rallying to get past Seton Hall on Wednesday, and were then ousted by Connecticut in a four-point loss Thursday night. The Hoyas aren't dead, not due to the woeful performances of other bubble teams around America. Maryland, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and DePaul all were defeated, not to mention Notre Dame.

That's it. More tomorrow on the Wildcats in the Big East tournament...

No comments: