by Craig Dimitri
Tonight's game at the Wachovia Center was unusual, in several respects. One was the atypical 6 PM tip-off, which actually worked out well, as it permitted post-game revelry in Philadelphia while the evening was still young (although Jim Boeheim did his best to delay the post-game fun for the Villanova faithful. Boeheim opted for the game to die a slow, painful death, continuing to foul in the last two minutes, despite trailing by double-digits). The 6 PM start, of course, was to accommodate ESPN's wishes, as they wanted a doubleheader with four Big East teams in the Top 25 - Connecticut traveled to Louisville in the nightcap.
Another was the fact that the announced attendance (20, 581) was the largest crowd to ever see a college basketball game in Pennsylvania, as Villanova broke its own record in that department once again. The tipping point was probably Gerry McNamara. Last season, approximately 5,000 members of "McNamara's Band" from his hometown of Scranton, Pa., made the trip down the Northeast Extension to see their hero. They were undoubtedly gratified by the Orangemen's 90-75 triumph over the Wildcats. And with McNamara a senior, and the Wildcats now in the top five, there weren't 5,000 McNamara fans there, but just enough, probably, to break the attendance record.
Still another quirk was the fact that Villanova blew Syracuse out of the building early, taking an early 20-4 lead and ultimately winning the game by 15. However, the second half was far closer and more competitive than those facts would indicate. Villanova led by as many as 21 in the first half and took a 39-20 lead into the locker room. However, the Orangemen threw quite a scare into the Wildcats, getting as close as four points, when Syracuse opened the second half on a 17-2 run. The Wildcats finally subdued them, and began to resume pulling away as the second half progressed. But it was not a breeze of a second half, by any stretch of the imagination. Only Boeheim's stubborn insistence on fouling, pushed the final margin as high it was.
The big stars, as usual, were the four guards. The entire quartet turned in strong performances and those made the victory seem to be so lopsided. Allan Ray had 22 points and collected eight rebounds, an outstanding performance. Randy Foye had 20 points and five rebounds. Kyle Lowry scored 11 points, including a perfect 7-7 from the line, and Mike Nardi also reached double figures with 10, along with dealing seven assists.
The four guards also played tough on the defensive end. McNamara's Band had the opportunity to see one of the worst games of the senior guard's career (he has now started 119 consecutive games, the longest active streak in Division I). McNamara finished with just four points on 1-8 shooting, and his seven assists were nearly offset by the half-dozen turnovers he committed in his 37 minutes.
Worth noting: Will Sheridan had an outstanding game, despite the fact that he played 35 minutes, before fouling out, and took no field goal attempts. Sheridan still managed to score seven points, by going 7-8 from the foul line. He also made two other major contributions, grabbing seven rebounds, posting a career-high for steals (four), and making a pair of assists. (Sheridan had three thefts in two previous games, most recently against New Mexico, in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament.) There's no way to check this, of course, but I would submit that:
a) This was probably one of the greatest games in Villanova history, for a player who took no shots.
b) This was probably the VU record for minutes played without taking a shot (35) and points (seven).
Villanova improved to 4-1 Big East, and 13-2 overall. Syracuse fell to 3-2 Big East, 15-4 overall. This game was also important for the Big East tournament, as the top four finishers will receive precious first-round byes, and the Wildcats will still have to go to the Carrier Dome later this year. Also, just for bragging rights, it was an important win, just in principle. 'Nova hadn't defeated Syracuse since March 6, 2002, in the Big East tournament, during Jay Wright's first season.
Rank and File
The Wildcats should receive at least a slight boost in the polls this week, as all three of the remaining unbeaten teams went down in a single day, a remarkable occurrence. Fellow Big East school Georgetown shocked #1 Duke, while St. John's upset Pittsburgh in Big East play, and Tennessee beat Florida later on Saturday night. I speculate that the Wildcats, with two victories this week, move to #7/#6, up from their current #8/#7.
Up Next for the Wildcats
Villanova will finally get a breather, after all of these games against other nationally ranked teams and emotional, traditional City Series contests. The Wildcats will travel to South Florida to take on the Bulls on Tuesday night, in the first-ever meeting between the schools, as South Florida is another of the conference newcomers this season.
A full preview is on the way...