by Craig Dimitri
It was not how one would describe a typical Villanova cupcake game. Instead of being played at the cozy on-campus Pavilion, it was played 78 miles away in Atlantic City, NJ, the oasis for slot-playing seniors. And it was played against Longwood, a school which few (if anyone, at least if they're being honest) had ever heard of. (Ray Didinger, the distinguished football writer, wittily noted on WIP that "the only Longwood I had ever heard of was Longwood Gardens [the large landscaped nursery out in Chester County] and you'd figure that they'd be pretty busy at Christmas time, with little time for basketball.")
Didinger wasn't the only one, of course, who had never heard of Longwood, which brought a 2-6 record into the contest. For one thing, it is not located anywhere near Atlantic City. It is, instead, in Farmville, Virginia, in the south-central interior of the state, near the North Carolina border, a bit southwest of the state's capital, Richmond. It is, according to Mapquest, 312.73 miles/5 hours, 32 minutes, from VU.
Longwood is a former Division II school, which is in the process (a long, painful one, apparently) of making the fitful leap to full-fledged Division I status. (If you really want to learn more - www.longwoodlancers.com) It appears to be in the third year of the four-year transition, which would seem to indicate that it will be a bona fide D-I school by the 2007-08 season.
Along with a handful of other schools making similar transitions, it is an independent with no conference affiliation. One fact alone establishes the growing pains: last season, the Longwood Lancers went 1-30. (Cool name, though, the alliteration rolls off the tongue.) This year's team has already doubled its predecessor's win total.
Accordingly, it would be safe to say that if Longwood somehow managed to defeat #4 Villanova, it would rank with Chaminade defeating Ralph Sampson's Virginia back in the early '80s, as one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.
Fortunately, Villanova did not provide an opportunity for Longwood to be the lead story on SportsCenter, with the biggest upset of 2005. The Wildcats defeated the Lancers by the surprisingly close margin of 90-77, improving to 6-0 and remaining among the ranks of the unbeaten.
Longwood could point to a moral victory. They still managed to outrebound 'Nova significantly, 44-35, and trailed by 29-25 at one point, and shot 50% (6-12) from beyond the arc.
As one might imagine, this was a rather unusual scenario for a December Villanova game - playing an obscure Division I (and a half?) school from rural Virginia, on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The game was played in Boardwalk Hall, within walking distance of the various and sundry casinos. The venue's 7,000-odd seats were filled with VU students, alumni and fans, many of whom, as the cliche goes, inhabit the Garden State, as AC is just a relatively-quick jaunt from VU down the aptly-named AC Expressway. (And if you were coming from points north, the Garden State Parkway.)
The senior backcourt, as usual, paced the Wildcats. Randy Foye had 27 points on 9-18 shooting, and Allan Ray had 20 points on 7-15 shooting. Will Sheridan had a powerful game underneath, scoring 13 points on 6-10 shooting, while collecting eight rebounds, in only 29 minutes. Mike Nardi had a fine all-around game, scoring a dozen points, dealing five assists and grabbing three rebounds. For Longwood, the leading scorer was Michael Jefferson, with 19 points.
Throughout the game, Wright was able to spread playing time to the bench, a long-overdue move, and the chief reason why the victory margin was only 13 points. ('Nova was never threatened, holding a 44-32 advantage at halftime.) For once, Villanova moved away from the four-guard alignment: Kyle Lowry played only six minutes, as he was bothered by back spasms.
Freshmen Dante Cunningham (22 minutes), Dwayne Anderson (12 minutes), Bilal Benn (13 minutes) and Frank Tchuisi (2 minutes) all got into the game, as did Chris Charles (8 minutes) and Baker Dunleavy (2 minutes).
Obviously, it was the first (and likely the last) meeting of the two schools.
The Wildcats will return to action by opening City Series play, against the Penn Quakers on Tuesday, December 13, at the Palestra.