Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A History of the Holy War: Villanova/St. Joseph's, As the Schools Clash for the 64th Time

by Craig Dimitri
E-mail: novaviewpoint@yahoo.com

Villanova leads the all-time series, 40-23. As members of the Big Five, the margin is considerably narrower: 29-22. Villanova had won eleven of the twelve meetings since the first game took place in 1921, until the formation of the Big Five in the 1955-56 season. 'Nova has done well in recent years, winning seven of the last nine contests. Most of the SJU victories came during the 1950s and 1960s; Villanova is 24-11 over the last three decades or so.

The telecast will be on ESPN2, at 7:00 PM; this is the sixth consecutive season that the ESPN networks have featured the Holy War as part of their "Rivalry Week" series in February.

The Origin of the Series, Prior to the Formation of the Big Five

Villanova played SJU (then St. Joseph's College) twice, during the Wildcats' first ever season on the hardwood, which took place during the 1920-21 school year. The first contest took place on January 15, 1921, on the Main Line, with 'Nova winning 31-22. In the return game, Villanova completed the sweep by prevailing 24-14. The teams clashed often during the 1920s, but after the 1930 game, the series lay dormant for a long time. In the ensuing quarter-century, the only meeting was in 1939. As to why two proximate Catholic schools would go so long without meeting - can't figure it out.

But when the Big Five got rolling, it was SJU's turn to dominate the series. The Hawks won the first six City Series games and ten of the first twelve. The two schools had the honor of clashing in the first-ever Big Five contest at the Palestra, on December 14, 1955- St. Joe's won, 83-70. Surprisingly, the public did not seem all that interested in the game, as a paltry 2,636 spectators showed up for the historic inaugural. Villanova was ordinary that year, finishing at 14-12, but St. Joe's went 25-6 and reached the NIT semifinals.

The lack of interest is even more surprising, in light of the fact that starting with the 1958 game, every single VU/SJU game attracted a sellout or near-sellout crowd at the Palestra, with the high attendance continuous for all games since then, regardless of venue. The attendance for the 1957 game climbed to 5,659, but then the Palestra was packed to the rafters for Villanova/St. Joe's.

Some Memorable Games in the Series (Villanova victories in light blue, St. Joseph's victories in crimson)

February 12, 1958

Villanova loses to St. Joe's, 86-82, in overtime, after failing to hold a 17 point lead.

January 28, 1961

St. Joe's was a powerhouse, and would finish with a 25-5 record under Jack Ramsay
, a deep NCAA tournament run, and a City Series sweep. In the last season for legendary coach Alexander Severance, Villanova would finish winless in City Series play and with a dismal 11-13 record. But the Wildcats nearly pulled off a huge upset, losing only 64-63.

March 3, 1962

New coach Jack Kraft leads the Wildcats to their first-ever City Series victory over the Hawks, prevailing 66-59. The victory gives Villanova its first City Series sweep, with Hubie White leading the way with 23 points and 17 rebounds. Both teams went on to the NCAA tournament, in an era when the tournament field was very small.
February 20, 1965

This was the most titanic clash in Holy War history, as in no other year have both schools simultaneously posted such gaudy records. St. Joe's would finish at 26-3, with a 4-0 City Series sweep, and reach the NCAA tournament. Villanova would finish at 23-5 and reach the NIT semifinals. And when they met head-to-head, there was a bizarre incident - a bomb scare at the Palestra. According to a perhaps legendary tale, radio broadcaster Les Keiter
refused to go off the air during the threat, announcing his intention to stay there all night if necessary. It turned out to be a false alarm, and the Hawks won, 69-62.

January 16, 1966

In one of the most written about Big Five finishes, Hawk substitute Steve Donches
connects on a 29-footer at the buzzer to give SJU a 71-69 victory.

January 11, 1969

The legendary Wildcat center Howard Porter turns in one of his most incredible performances, scoring 36 points and grabbing 26 rebounds to help Villanova blow out St. Joe's, 87-62. The 25 point margin was Villanova's most lopsided victory in the series to that point. The performance helps propel Porter to a share of the Geasey Award (the Big Five MVP) with La Salle's Ken Durrett.

February 20, 1971/March 13, 1971

In Villanova's second-greatest season, the Porter-led Wildcats will go 23-6 and reach the NCAA championship game before bowing to John Wooden's UCLA dynasty. But en route, they meet St. Joe's twice in one season, for the first time since 1923. In the City Series game, Villanova triumphs 63-55, although Hawks center Mike Bantom
outplays Porter.

The schools would meet again at the Palestra, in the first round of the NCAA tournament (the only time, before or since, the Holy War has extended to postseason play). 'Nova won in a rout, 93-75.

January 27, 1973

In Kraft's final season, Villanova scuffled to a rare losing record at 11-14. St. Joe's went 22-6 and to the NCAA tournament. But the Wildcats shocked the heavily favored Hawks, 79-72, with 43 points coming from Tom Ingelsby- the Geasey winner - and Ed Hastings.

February 22, 1975

Rollie Massimino wins his first game against the Hawks: Larry and Keith Herron each score 19 points in Villanova's 71-67 victory. The attraction of the rivalry was quite evident at this point. Villanova and St. Joe's finished with disastrous 9-18 and 8-17 records, respectively. La Salle and Penn had fantastic seasons, in contrast. But Villanova/St. Joe's drew 9,233 fans, the 3rd-highest total of the ten City Series contests. (Penn/Villanova and Penn/La Salle were the only others to draw more than 7,300).

February 19, 1977

The first City Series game away from the Palestra, as the Villanova/St. Joe's game goes to the Spectrum, to accommodate more fans for both schools. The Wildcats win 92-78, in front of 12,138 fans.

February 23, 1980

For the first time, the Wildcats and Hawks meet while both squads are 3-0 in City Series play. In front of a sold-out Palestra, the Hawks came away with a narrow 60-59 victory to give St. Joe's its first City Series title since 1968.

February 22, 1983

In the second Spectrum game in the series, a record throng of 18,060 witnesses a 70-62 Wildcat victory, the most to ever witness a Holy War.

February 19, 1985

It was the annus mirabilis (in Latin, the "year of miracles") on the Main Line. And perhaps the basketball gods' first sign of favor took place at the Spectrum, in the Holy War.

Villanova entered the game having lost three in a row, while the Hawks had won nine straight. Villanova was 3-0 in City Series play, but SJU was 1-1 and could pursue a share of the Big Five title with a victory over the 'Cats. 'Nova started the game on a 9-2 run, but by halftime the Hawks had overtaken them, 22-19. St. Joe's led 30-23 with 14:18 to go, before 'Nova rallied. Ed Pinckney connected on two free throws to draw the Wildcats even at 44 with 3:08 to play.

It seems odd to write this today, in the era of the shot clock, but SJU nearly succeeded in holding the ball for three minutes to take the last shot. Dwayne McClain rebounded the errant St. Joe's shot with only four seconds to go. On the inbounds play, McClain hit a 18-footer and was fouled. By converting the three-point play, McClain gave Villanova a 47-44 victory- and the outright Big Five title for the first time since 1967.

McClain's 18 points and Harold Pressley's 14 points paced 'Nova, as they each went 7-11 from the floor.
Rodney Blake
led the Hawks with 14 points and 10 rebounds.

February 19, 1987

"Daddy Mass" had the chance to win his 300th game against the Hawks. It took double overtime at the Palestra, but the Wildcats finally delivered an 88-87 victory. (Once a perennial fixture at the Palestra, it would be the last Holy War at the basketball cathedral for over seven years, until December 1994).

December 12, 1988

The Hawks soar into the Pavilion for the first time ever, facing a powerful Wildcat squad that would reach the Elite Eight come March. But the heavy-underdog Hawks pull off a 53-52 upset over Doug West, Mark Plansky and Tom Greis, thanks to a 15-foot bank shot by the obscure "Pick" Brown.
(Villanova finished the season at 24-13, the Hawks at 15-14.)

December 18, 1994

The Holy War, now taking place every other year due to Villanova's 1991-99 withdrawal from the full round-robin, returns to the Palestra for the first time in over six years. #22 Villanova - at the apex of the Kerry Kittles era - is a heavy favorite over a small, slow St. Joe's squad. (The Hawks hadn't reached postseason play since 1986.) But Dmitri Domani hits two key free throws down the stretch, to give St. Joe's a 60-57 upset victory. Kittles graduates as the first Wildcat superstar since the 1950s, to never beat St. Joe's (albeit with only two opportunities, rather than four). Although nobody knew it at the time, it would be the last Holy War for SJU coach John Griffin, who also had been a Hawk player; he resigned at the end of the season, and was replaced by one of his longtime assistants, Phil Martelli. However
, St. Joe's would not defeat Villanova again, for another decade.

December 23, 1996

At Christmas time, Villanova coach Steve Lappas, as well as stars Alvin Williams and Jason Lawson, finally defeat St. Joe's. The #10 Wildcats had only one disadvantage - the absence of freshman sensation Tim Thomas, sidelined with an injury. After struggling in the first half, the Wildcats go on a 24-3 run in the second half to win easily, 81-65. (There is a huge Pavilion crowd of 6,672, including a healthy number of Hawk partisans able to obtain tickets, with the VU students on break.)

The victory looks more significant in light of subsequent events than it seemed at the time. St. Joe's - which hadn't been to the NCAA tournament in over a decade - went on to a highly unexpected 26-7 season and Sweet 16 appearance. However, at the time the 'Nova victory was considered routine, given the Wildcats' vast advantages in talent (even with Thomas out).

December 1, 1998 -

The Wildcats make it two in a row over the Hawks, 61-49, thanks to 15 points each from seniors Howard Brown and Rafal Bigus. Brown punctuates the game with several acrobatic feats, including a highly memorable tip dunk.

February 17, 2000 - Pavilion

This was the first Holy War to take place, after the joyous announcement during the previous off-season, that Villanova would resume participation in the full-round robin, starting with the 1999-2000 season. The Wildcats had been absent from the round-robin, beginning with the 1991-92 season, an eight-year absence.

Marvin O'Connor,
who transferred from 'Nova to St. Joe's after his freshman season of 1997-98, takes on his former teammates for the first time. (Intra-Big Five transfers are rare.) O'Connor leads the Hawks with 20 points, but on only 8-24 shooting. Gary Buchanan singlehandedly gives the Wildcats a hard-fought, 68-61 victory, with a 24 point outburst.

December 11, 2000

The Holy War returns to the Palestra. St. Joe's comes close to its long-denied victory over the Wildcats, leading 39-32 at intermission. O'Connor dazzles with 32 points on 11-17 shooting to lead the Hawks. But 'Nova rallies in the second half to come away with a hard-fought, thrilling 78-75 victory. Michael Bradley has a field day in the paint, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Reggie Bryant and Aaron Matthews add 13 for the 'Cats.

February 2002 - Pavilion

In the first Holy War under Jay Wright, Villanova eviscerated SJU at the Pavilion, 102-73, the largest margin of victory for either side in the then-81 year history of the series. Gary Buchanan led the way with 28 points, including a career-high seven three-pointers.

February 2003 - Palestra

Martelli had been the most successful coach at SJU since Jack Ramsay
, having won Atlantic 10 titles and reached a Sweet 16 in 1997. He defeated Villanova for the first time in six tries, as the Hawks humiliated the 'Cats, 92-75, at the Palestra. Incredibly, the 17-point final margin does not accurately reflect, how lopsided the game actually was.

During the first eight minutes, the Wildcats committed 15 turnovers and scored three baskets. The Hawks started the contest on a 40-9 run - and the 17-point deficit was actually the closest Villanova drew after that, during the entire game. (One particularly zealous Hawk partisan actually had the opening run immortalized on his Pennsylvania license plate: "SJ40-VU9".)

Jameer Nelson had 30 points to lead the Hawks. Delonte West,
who had been the lead story entering the game, after media reports surfaced regarding an altercation he had allegedly had with the SJU trainer, did not start as a result. But playing 26 minutes, he scored 25 points.

February 2004

The #3 Hawks entered the Pavilion soaring as high as they ever have, bringing an unblemished 18-0 mark into the game; they would eventually garner a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament and reach the Elite Eight. However, the Wildcats substantially improved upon the sorry spectacle of the previous year. The overmatched Wildcats fought admirably before finally falling, 74-67.

Nelson and West combined for 45 points, but Mike Nardi led the Wildcat counterattack with 16 points and five assists. A three-pointer from Andreas Bloch cut the Hawk lead to 54-50, with less than nine minutes to play, before what had to have been one of the largest crowds in Pavilion history. But that was as close as 'Nova came to an upset.

February 2005

By a remarkable twist of fate, Super Bowl XXXIX between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots is scheduled for the previous day. And so Holy War LXII is relegated to the back burner. Lost amidst the avalanche of Super Bowl coverage, it was the probably the least hyped battle between the two schools since the formation of the Big Five.

VU was enjoying its first great year, under Jay Wright, and entered the contest with a #22 ranking. SJU was coming off a remarkable season in which they were undefeated until the Atlantic 10 tournament and ranked #1 for a week. The Hawks had reached the Elite Eight (moreover, coming within a Jameer Nelson shot of reaching the Final Four), and with both teams enjoying a renaissance, it should have had the makings of a fantastic contest. However, the melancholia of the crowd (for both teams) was too much to overcome. The Patriots' vanquishing of the Eagles the previous evening cast a funereal pall over the proceedings, like a vast, billowing fog through which no other sporting event could shine.

And as it turned out, the game wasn't all that good, anyway. The Wildcats were never challenged in a slow, foul-marred game, which they won, 67-52. Jason Fraser had arguably the finest game of his star-crossed career, coming off the bench to score 14 points, grab 14 rebounds and block two shots, despite being hampered by a heavily bandaged hand and playing only 29 minutes. The Hawks'
Pat Carroll, a superb outside shooter, would miss his first 13 shots, as SJU had mustered only 20 points with less than 14 minutes to play.

Finally, the Hawks' band would play, during garbage time, a mournful version of "Fly, Eagles, Fly", accurately reflecting what was on the mind of the Palestra crowd...

February 7, 2006 - Palestra

It was the 50th Anniversary of the creation of the Big Five. And as fate would have it, both teams entered the sold-out, packed-beyond-capacity Palestra, with perfect 3-0 City Series marks: the winner would take the 50th Big Five title. This represented only the fourth time in the Big Five's half-century history, that two schools would enter a City Series contest, with both having 3-0 records.

And despite a terrible first half, Villanova ended up withe the chance to savor another City Series sweep. Despite the unavailability of a tonsillitis-stricken Mike Nardi, the #4 Wildcats were heavy favorites over the Hawks. And so there was much astonishment in the venerable building, when St. Joseph's dominated the first half. Villanova was trailing by double-digits, 34-22, at halftime. But Villanova rallied to defeat the Hawks, 71-58, for the second year in a row, capturing the City Series crown. "Nova annihilated SJU after intermission, winning the second half by more than doubling up the Hawks, 49-24. The Wildcats shot a stunning 68% in the second half, after scuffling to an anemic 30% in the first half.

Kyle Lowry, playing in his second (and since he ultimately left early for the NBA, final) contest with SJU, scored 25 points, including 17 in the second-half counterattack, which featured a 21-3 Wildcats run. The gifted senior backcourt of Allan Ray and Randy Foye also contributed 14 points apiece. For SJU, Chet Stachitas had 19 points, with Abdulai Jalloh adding 15 points and Dwayne Lee recording 11 points.

Another chapter, to be written Tuesday night...


Price McIlvaine said...

In the 1973 Villanova-St Joe game chang the name to Tom Ingleseby

Price McIlvaine said...

In the 1973 Villanova-St. Joe game change the name to Tom Inglesby

Villanova Viewpoint Publisher said...

Thank you for the correction. I have changed the names accordingly.

Matt Barbacane said...

Mr. McIlvaine,

You can't even imagine my reaction after I finished reading the article. I was about to say the same thing. See you at the game.

Villanova Viewpoint Publisher said...

Hello, Matt-

I just cameacross your comment. Thank you for taking the time to read the History of the Holy War, and to commenton it as well. Is there an e-mail address, where you can be reached?

In addition, if you know of any other Villanova fans who might be interested in villanova Viewpoint, please let me know, and/or send them a link to Villanova Viewpoint...



Chase said...

Thanks for this. As a St. Joe's fan/student, it's nice to see an article that's completely without bias and also very informative.

Anonymous said...

The 2002 game was actually played Jan.28th, not in February.