Wednesday, December 07, 2005

In Homecoming for Coach Jay Wright, #4 Villanova Survives Scare at Bucknell, 79-60

by Craig Dimitri

Don't let the 19-point margin of victory deceive you. Bucknell was playing on its home floor, in front of a rabid, raucous student crowd, in the biggest on-campus game in decades. And the Bison trailed by just three, to the fourth-ranked team in the nation, in the second half. In the end, fortunately, the Villanova speed, quickness and athleticism were enough to subdue Jay Wright's gallant alma mater, 79-60, at Sojka Pavilion in Lewisburg, Pa.

Bucknell is no pushover. Last season, the Bison knocked off Big East member Pittsburgh and stunned Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And they have continued that success, this year. Bucknell was undefeated entering the game, with a 5-0 record, and has already beaten then-#17 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome as well as defeating DePaul in Chicago.

And those upsets were on the road. Here, the Bison had one of the rarest of opportunities for a Patriot League team: the chance to face a national power on their home floor, instead of constantly hitting the road for these contests. This precious opportunity came about explicitly, due to Jay Wright's four-year career at Bucknell (class of 1982). It was also one of the rarest sights in college basketball: a game in which both coaches attended the same alma mater, as Bucknell coach Pat Flannery also played for the Bison. Not surprisingly, uuntil the game started, Wright was the toast of Lewisburg, as students waved Reagan-era pictures of Wright as a player.

(The Bison's logo is also quite cool - it's identical to the logo of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, except with blue, orange and white, instead of the Bills' red, white, and blue.)

But after tip-off, Bucknell's fans and players were undoubtedly contemplating the possibility of another upset, when the score was just 44-41 early in the second half. 'Nova had raced out to an early 26-7 lead, quieting the crowd, but led by just nine, 40-31, at halftime.

And even as late as the ten-minute mark, the orange-and-blue Bison were still down just 54-48. This margin was a long way from comfortable for Villanova, with the deafening, partisan, largely student crowd (the 4,433-seat Sojka Pavilion was sold out) in full fury behind the Bison's bid, for yet another upset over a national power.

The Wildcats were able to exploit their advantages, however, after that point. 'Nova went on a 10-0 run to put the game out of reach at 64-48, and were never challenged the rest of the way. And thus, Villanova remains undefeated, at 5-0.

Randy Foye was the biggest contributor, leading the Wildcats with 28 points and 11 rebounds. After scoring just two points in the first half, Allan Ray exploded for 18 after intermission. Kyle Lowry was the only other Wildcat to reach double figures, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and four steals. One factor, that kept the Bison in the game, were turnovers: Villanova coughed it up 18 times, including seven times on Bucknell steals.

The biggest advantage was on the glass. Even playing with four guards, Villanova won the rebounding battle, 37-21, something which it is very unlikely to do for the rest of the season.

For Bucknell, Chris McNaughton virtually carried the team, especially given Villanova's weakness in the paint. He had a game-high 29 points (on 12-21 shooting, plus 5-6 from the line) and five rebounds, while none of his teammates had more than nine points. Abe Badmus (one of the great names in college basketball) contributed significantly for the Bison, with eight points, four rebounds, and five assists. Bucknell is now 5-1, although, ironically, it won at Rider by just two points, against a Broncos squad that Villanova breezed through, earlier this season.

Villanova, surprisingly, leads the all-time series against Bucknell by just a 12-8 margin, although the main reason for that fact is that prior to Wright's arrival at Villanova in 2001-02, the schools hadn't faced each other since 1948 (the schools faced each other frequently in the 1930s and '40s.) Bucknell's last victory came on December 8, 1945. In modern times, the teams' only previous meeting was at the Pavilion during Wright's first year, with the 'Cats triumphing 67-44, on December 1, 2001.

The 'Cats return to action against Longwood, on Saturday, December 10, in Atlantic City.

Go Wildcats!

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