Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Bad Luck of the Irish Continues, as #6 Villanova Yields 17-point 2nd Half Lead, But Escapes on Lowry Tip-in the Final Seconds, 72-70

by Craig Dimitri

This game never should have been so close. #6 Villanova was on cruise control in the second half, and threatening to turn the contest into a rout. The green-clad ND students - filling up a huge swath of the Joyce Center, behind one basket - had been silenced. The Wildcats seemingly had it in the bag, when freshman Dante Cunningham - who continues to impress, with his increased playing time - laid it in from underneath, to give 'Nova a 59-42 lead with 10:48 to play.

It should be noted that Notre Dame gave 'Nova all it could handle in the first half, and the teams entered halftime, with 'Nova leading by just a single point, 35-34. In fact, ND actually had a 24-17 lead, when Kyle McAlarney - off an assist by Chris Quinn - hit a three, with 5:23 to play in the opening stanza.

However, Mike Nardi answered by sandwiching triples around a Torin Francis layup, at about the two-minute mark, and VU retook the lead at 31-29. Kyle Lowry had a steal which led to an Allan Ray dunk, and Villanova had embarked on a 16-5 run to now lead 33-29. The teams continued to battle until 'Nova had the lead at the first buzzer, 35-34.

Nardi and Ray had outstanding first halves, and were carrying the team. At intermission, Nardi was 5-8 shooting overall, 4-6 from three-point range, and had 15 points. Ray - after missing Tuesday's frustrating struggle with South Florida with a hamstring injury - had 13 points on 5-9 shooting overall, 3-5 from three-point range - and had six rebounds, to go with two assists. For ND, star Chris Quinn led with eight points, four rebounds, and four assists, with Francis adding six points and four rebounds.

However, VU appeared to run ND out of the gym, when play resumed. The teams traded baskets during the first two minutes, and Francis's jumper at the 18:05 mark cut the VU lead to 43-39. But the Golden Domers did not score a single point, for nearly seven minutes. In that span, VU scored a dozen points, unanswered, and soon were holding a 55-39 lead with just under 12 minutes remaining. The Notre Dame drought finally ended when McAlarney, again fed by Quinn, hit a triple to cut it to 55-42 at the 11:44 mark.

But the Wildcats continued to extend their lead, scoring four more points, the last two of which came on Cunningham's aforementioned layup. Bottom line - it was 59-42 with 10:48 to play. VU had outscored ND 24-8 in the first nine minutes-plus of the second half. It appeared to be over - it really did.

Somehow, ND rallied. The key was that Ray reinjured his hamstring and had to come out of the contest, briefly. Although he wasn't gone long (he logged 37 minutes) Ray's absence helped make the ND resurgence possible. With their crowd egging them on, the Golden Domers went on a 22-4 run, to reclaim the lead at 64-63, with two free throws from Colin Falls - their outside sharpshooter who had recorded zero points up until that time. This came at the 2:22 mark.
Nardi airballed a three on the next possession, and ND rebounded. The Irish missed two three-point shots on the ensuing possession, but got a third try when Lowry and Will Sheridan both recovered the rebound and were called (correctly) for traveling with 1:41 to go.

After being fouled by Sheridan, Quinn then hit a pair of free throws with 1:38 to play, giving ND a 66-63 lead. It was now a 24-4 run; VU had scored a grand total of four points (and one FG) over a nine-minute span. Candidly, it was time for panic on the VU bench, and Lowry called timeout after getting it over halfcourt, at the 1:35 mark.

Fortunately, ND mistakes opened the door for VU to triumph. The trailing Wildcats were fouled on each of their next three possessions. Carter fouled Randy Foye with 1:24 left, and the senior converted both FTs (on a pressure one-and-one situation) to make it 66-65, ND. At the other end, Foye fouled Carter (a good foul, because Carter was going to have an easy basket, unimpeded, if Foye hadn't fouled him on the drive) who also made a pair to re-extend the score to 68-65, with just 1:04 to go.

A lot was going to have to go right for VU to win at this point - and it did. Carter committed a foolish foul on Foye; it was foolish not only because Foye didn't have an easy shot, trying to create off his drive, but because it fouled Carter out of the game (he finished with 14 points/6 rebs, and ND could have used him for the remaining 55 seconds). Foye once again kept the pressure on ND with a pair of FTs - 68-67, with 55.0 seconds left, ND ball.

After the Irish drained the clock for as long as they dared (VU was guaranteed another possession, with at least 20 seconds to go), Quinn took a gamble on a triple, that might have KO'd the 'Cats, if it had gone in. ND would have been up by four with 30 seconds left. But it didn't... and Ray grabbed the rebound with 30 seconds left. He raced up the court, and McAlarney fouled him on a drive, giving Ray a chance for a traditional three-point play when the ball went in. Ray hit the FT, and VU reclaimed the lead, 70-68, with 22.3 seconds to play.

Francis re-tied the game, on an assist from Quinn, with 13.5 seconds to go. Jay Wright used 'Nova's final timeout to discuss the situation at 10.8 seconds, after waiting to get over the line. ND had one timeout left.

Foye drained some time at the top of the key, then drove the lane and missed off the rim. Somehow, someway, Kyle Lowry (at six feet), managed to tip in the game-winning basket with 1.7 seconds to go. Since ND had no timeouts, they couldn't set up a play, and a Quinn desperation shot from just beyond half-court, didn't go in and it wouldn't have beaten the buzzer, anyhow. Villanova victory, 72-70.

But ultimately, a win is a win. Villanova improved its record to 6-1 Big East, 15-2 overall. 'Nova now trails first-place West Virginia by just half a game, in a three-way tie for 2nd place with Connecticut and Pittsburgh.

ND dropped to 10-8, 1-6 Big East. This is their 11th Big East campaign, and their worst start in conference play, since the maiden campaign of '95-'96 also started 1-6.

For the Irish, all six BE losses have been by a combined margin of 22 points - and their three most recent (@ Marquette, Georgetown in double OT, and Villanova) have come by a total of seven points. But all the agonizing losses will mean, is a third straight visit to the NIT. That is, if they're lucky, as ND would need to be at .500 overall, for a bid, and the Irish still have three ranked BE opponents on the road to face - finishing .500 overall, won't be easy.

They still might make the Big East tournament. After they have to travel to WVU and Louisville, the schedule grows easier. Of their final seven, only one is against a ranked team (@ #1 Connecticut) and so they'll be playing all the other bottom-feeders.

Looking at the Numbers

Ray clearly had the best overall game. Even with a lingering hamstring problem, he had a game-high 23 points (4-6 from three-point range), 10 rebounds (a great double-double), four assists, two steals, and didn't commit a turnover in 37 minutes. Nardi was also awesome: 22 points, on 5-11 shooting from beyond the arc. Foye had 18 points, three boards, and four assists. No other Wildcat had more than four points - but it was Lowry's third and fourth points in the dying seconds that made all the difference.

As a team, the 'Cats played well - they converted 13 of 16 FTs, 81.3%, and committed only seven turnovers. As a result, ND had to fight a lot harder for the points it did get, not getting many in transition or on fast breaks.

Three players came off the bench for 'Nova: Jason Fraser (14 minutes, three boards, and one point), Cunningham (19 minutes, two points, two boards), and Shane Clark (10 minutes, did not score, two boards). Will Sheridan, although he started, only played 19 minutes, but he chipped in big time with nine boards and two blocks in what was essentially a single half, for him.

For Notre Dame, Quinn again tried to carry the team like Atlas. He led the Irish in a remarkable diversity of statistics: minutes played (all 40), points (18), field goals (6), three-pointers (4), rebounds, both overall and offensive (9 and 3), assists (8), blocked shots (2), and less admirably, turnovers (6).

However, three other Golden Domers did reach double figures:

Carter (14 points, including 8-11 from the line, six rebounds, and two assists, before unwisely fouling himself out in the final minute);

McAlarney (coming off the bench to score 13 points and collect three rebounds, in just 22 minutes);

Francis (11 points/six boards in only 27 minutes).

Falls, the team's best perimeter threat, was completely shut down by the 'Nova defense. He was reduced to taking a lone, unsuccessful shot in each half, and thus finished the game with a total of just two points from the foul line, although he did deal five assists.

Historical Perspective

Villanova continues its remarkable dominance of Notre Dame in Big East play. It was Villanova's 10th victory in the dozen times the schools have faced each other, since ND joined the Big East for the 1995-96 season. The Wildcats also improved to 5-1 at the Joyce Center, all-time. Including pre-Big East clashes, VU now leads, 15-12.

Rank and File

The Wildcats spent the week of January 23-January 30, 2006, ranked #6 in both polls, including a first-place vote in the AP poll. When Monday's poll is released, the 'Cats would figure to advance to #5 in both. In the less-reliable ESPN/USA Today poll, current #5 Texas fell at #22 Oklahoma by 10 - whereas the AP puts the Red River Rivalry as #4 Texas falling at #24 Oklahoma.

Nonetheless, since UT is the only team ahead of Villanova, in either poll, that lost this week, it seems only logical that VU would take their spot and return to the top 5 (despite the head-to-head loss at Austin two weeks ago).

The ESPN2 Broadcast

I have to give a great deal of credit to former Utah coach Rick Majerus, who did the color analysis. Majerus did not rely on the typical ex-coach cliches ("Team X has to step up and begin scoring some points to get back into this basketball game", and the like...) Majerus used a lot of jargon. He often specified in detail, the players' strengths and weaknesses on both teams, as he explained the various matchups used by the coaches. (Indicating, clearly, that he had watched a lot of tape on both teams), and in general, did among the best color analysis I've heard in quite a while.

Next Up for the Wildcats

#22/23 Louisville (2-5 Big East, 13-5 overall) is not a lock to even reach the 12-team Big East tournament, despite being nationally ranked. The reeling Cardinals, who have lost four of their last five, will make a trip to the Wachovia Center on Monday night. The Cardinals will seek to avenge the loss Villanova handed them at Freedom Hall, in Louisville's first-ever Big East game.

I will provide a full preview...

Go Wildcats!

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