Around the stroke of midnight on Friday night, Villanova's would-be Cinderella run to a Final Four came to an end as well. The Wildcats' 2004-05 season ended at the hands of depth, firepower - and luck - as they ended up losing by a heartbreaking 67-66 score, to the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels, in the Sweet 16 in Syracuse, N.Y., at the Carrier Dome.
The loss was particularly galling, since Villanova had led by double digits (by as much as 21-9 and 30-19) in the first half, and by four at intermission. 'Nova's peak for the game probably took place when Foye nailed a triple at the 6:15 mark, to boost the Wildcat advantage back to 11 points at 30-19. It is a fitting testament to North Carolina's dominance this season that the four-point deficit was the largest they had overcome this season.
However, after play resumed, Villanova began to cool off, and North Carolina went on a 7-0 run early in the second half to take its first lead of the contest at 44-42, after Marvin Williams converted a pair of free throws at the 11:43 mark.
The Wildcats appeared to have gotten the break they needed when Felton picked up his fourth foul with 8:43 to play. However, Rashad McCants picked up his game, scoring seven straight points for Carolina. After the Tar Heels began to dominate play in the second half, the Wildcats trailed by 10, 64-54, with under three minutes to play.
But when point guard extraordinaire Raymond Felton fouled out at the 2:11 mark, the Tar Heels began to unravel, and the Wildcats still almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. However, they came up a single point short, although they outscored the Tar Heels, 12-3, in the final two-plus minutes. It was among the most painful, yet exhilarating, losses to watch in Villanova history, for those reasons.
The Tar Heels (30-4) advanced to the Elite Eight to face #6 Wisconsin, a team Villanova would likely have been favored against, even without Curtis Sumpter. Ultimately, the Wildcats were not able to simultaneously overcome both the loss of Sumpter, and their short bench against Carolina. Coach Jay Wright was even forced to insert practice player Baker Dunleavy to replace Randy Foye in the final seconds, after Foye had fouled out. Dunleavy has played only 24 minutes this season, but trailing, Wright desperately needed another potential three-point shooter and neither Marcus Austin nor Chris Charles fit that bill.
North Carolina has now subsequently defeated Wisconsin, to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2000. The 30th victory was the first time since 1998, that a Tar Heel squad had reached the 30-win plateau.
This appearance is an NCAA-record 17th trip to the Final Four, and North Carolina's seventh in the last 15 seasons. It also clearly signals the recovery of North Carolina's program, under Roy Williams, after its dip during the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Three years ago, Carolina finished 8-20; two years ago, they were in the NIT.
However, the Wildcats gave the Tar Heels all they could handle. North Carolina has many NCAA appearances over the years, 121 to be exact. But this was Carolina's first one-point NCAA tournament victory in 23 years, since the 1982 team featuring Michael Jordan, James Worthy, and Sam Perkins defeated Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the NCAA championship game, 63-62.
It was just Carolina's fifth single-point NCAA victory, ever. North Carolina also posted season lows in field goal attempts with 48, field goals with 20, and steals with three. Particularly during the first half, the Wildcats were able to successfully dictate a slow, deliberate tempo to the game, attempting to protect their short bench and shorten the game, much in the same way that Wright's mentor, former coach Roland V. Massimino, used to do so successfully.
North Carolina managed just 29 points by halftime. The game began to slip away, however, in the second half, when the fleeter and deeper Tar Heels began to fully exploit their advantages in transition. They began to successfully grind down the Wildcats, who until the shocking comeback in the final three minutes, appeared to be just about out of gas.
For some reason, North Carolina - which was making its 20th Sweet 16 appearance since 1975 - plays particularly well in the Carrier Dome. Including the victories over Villanova and Wisconsin this weekend, the Tar Heels are now 8-1 there all-time, and 7-1 in NCAA tournament play, including topping Villanova easily, in the second round of the 1991 tournament.
But on Friday, the Tar Heels had to overcome an odd coalition of anti-UNC fans in the building, who were not shy in expressing their avid preference for a Villanova victory. Well represented at the game were a large contingent of Villanova fans, crosstown rivals from NC State who resent North Carolina's dominance, Wisconsin fans who had just seen their team advance by beating NC State, and fervently wanted the lower seed Villanova to advance to face the Badgers on Sunday, and local Syracuse fans who were presumably pro-Big East.
Villanova finished arguably its best season in 17 years with a final record of 24-8, reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999 and the Sweet 16 for the first time in 17 years. Seven of the eight losses were by six points or less, and all were to teams that reached either the NCAA or NIT.
The Wildcats crushed then-second-ranked Kansas and upset nationally ranked Boston College and Pittsburgh at the Pavilion, as well as West Virginia, ranked at the time of the game and which made a Cinderella run of its own to the Elite Eight. The Wildcats also advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988, defeating #12 New Mexico and #4 Florida in order to face #1 North Carolina.
The Wildcats, playing without Curtis Sumpter, out with a torn ACL suffered in last week's second round victory over Florida, turned in a remarkably gallant effort, against a superior opponent. Villanova held the Tar Heels to just 67 points, the fewest it has scored in any of its previous 29 victories. In all North Carolina games, the only other lower one had been 66, for a team that had entered averaging 88.8 points a contest, and that game was the 77-66 season-opening loss to Santa Clara on Nov. 19, when point guard Raymond Felton didn't play due to rules violations.
Randy Foye scored 28 points (just one below his season-high) to lead the Wildcats, while Kyle Lowry added 18 points and seven rebounds. For North Carolina, Rashad McCants led with 17 points, and center Sean May had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. A crowd of 30,916 watched the game, setting a NCAA record for an on-campus regional, eclipsing the mark also set at the Carrier Dome in 2000.
I joined many other Wildcat fans upstairs, at the Wild Onion in Rosemont, Pa., where I watched the game with a packed house of passionate and raucous Villanova fans, who went home bitterly disappointed. Their disappointment was particularly aggravated by a controversial traveling call against Allan Ray, who had a potential game-tying three-point play disallowed, with 9.0 seconds remaining.
With North Carolina clinging to a 66-63 lead with just 9 seconds to go, it initially appeared that North Carolina's Rashad McCants had fouled Ray and the basket had counted, causing a momentary explosion of joy among 'Nova fans everywhere. However, the elation was short-lived, as it was ruled a travel and the basket nullified. Carolina was able to hold on and win by making free throws down the stretch.
All three CBS analysts - Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, and Seth Greenberg - in the New York studio immediately afterward, strongly disagreed with the official's call. However, it would not be fair to blame the call exclusively for Villanova's defeat, as-
- Ray still would have been required to make a free throw just to tie the score,
- The Wildcats would then have had to stop the Tar Heels on the final possession, and
- Then the Wildcats would have needed to win in overtime, and
- The overtime victory would have had to come without Mike Nardi, who had fouled out with 34 seconds to play, and with Randy Foye carrying four fouls (Foye would foul out in the final seconds of regulation after the travel call). It was the first foulout of the year for Mike Nardi in 30 games, as he had averaged just 1.5 fouls a contest all season.
- Perimeter Shooting: More than anything else, this doomed the Wildcats. North Carolina shot 42% from three-point range, while Villanova fired at just 29% (8-26).
- Rebounding: Villanova was badly outrebounded, sorely missing Sumpter in this department. The Tar Heels won the battle on the glass 38-29.
- Jawad Williams: Tremendous success on this one. Williams, who averaged 15 points/game in North Carolina victories, against just 7.5/game in defeats. Williams was limited to just 2 points against Villanova on 1-4 shooting, logging only 23 minutes.
Unfortunately, in Sumpter's absence, the Wildcats really could have used a stronger performance from frontcourters Will Sheridan and Jason Fraser, who combined for 62 minutes of play but scored just seven points.
Villanova needed another scoring option, since Ray continued his NCAA drought. Ray scuffled to a 2-14 shooting performance, the third straight subpar game for the second-team All-Big East player. With Sumpter on the bench (where he clearly borrowed some clothes from Coach Jay Wright's wardrobe, given how well dressed he was) and Ray cold as ice, Villanova desperately needed a third scoring option to accompany Foye and Lowry, but none was forthcoming. Hence defeat.
For North Carolina, Rashad McCants led with 17 points, with all but two coming after intermission. While McCants was effectively shut down from the floor (he finished with just 3-9 shooting), he more than made up for it at the foul line, making nine of his 10 attempts.
Super-freshman Marvin Williams came off the bench to score 16 points and collect five rebounds. Sean May bulldozed his way to his 16th double-double of the season and the 11th in his last 13 contests. May finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds despite playing only 28 minutes due to foul trouble.
Felton finished with 11 points, a career-high 11 rebounds, and five assists, but also committed six turnovers, including fouling out on an incredibly ill-advised play on Nardi with two minutes to go, nearly leading Carolina to implode down the stretch. It was Felton's first foulout of the season, and only the third of his career. And given Carolina's performance after he went to the bench for good, the Tar Heels can ill-afford to have him do it again in St. Louis this weekend.
Overall, Villanova won the turnover battle, one of the few statistical categories it dominated. The Wildcats forced 16 turnovers and committed just nine, although the last-second travel on Ray was the most costly turnover of the season. The nine turnovers were the fewest committed by any North Carolina opponent this season.
Villanova had some tough sledding to overcome, historically; it was the 27th time a #5 seed had faced a #1 in the Sweet 16, and the underdog has pulled off an upset only five times, including Michigan State's upset of Duke earlier in the evening.
Congratulations to Jay Wright and the Wildcats on their tremendous season, as well as to Roy Williams and the Tar Heels on their advancing to the Elite Eight for the 21st time in UNC history.