Monday, February 20, 2006

Wildcats Off to Best Start Since 1937-38, Topping Hoyas at Pavilion, 75-65

By Craig Dimitri

On a bright but cold Sunday afternoon on the Main Line, #4 Villanova poised itself for the highest regular-season ranking in the school’s illustrious 86 years of basketball. The Wildcats held off #17 Georgetown, 75-65, thrilling a packed Pavilion crowd that was in far excess of the 6,500 official capacity. After Villanova took a slim 30-28 lead at halftime, the Wildcats played in nearly flawless fashion upon returning to the floor. They committed zero turnovers after intermission, and only three in the entire contest.

The senior backcourt of Randy Foye and Allan Ray delivered once again for Villanova. Foye finished with a game-high 22 points on 8-16 shooting, dealt three assists, and also contributed significantly on the glass, collaring eight rebounds against the bigger Hoyas. Ray followed up his heroic second-half performance against UConn, with 20 points (including 5-10 shooting, from beyond the arc) and four assists. Ray’s numbers were particularly impressive, because the senior guard had struggled with his shooting accuracy, in both games against the Hoyas last season.

Perhaps the most significant player on the floor, however, was Kyle Lowry. Georgetown had no answer for the sophomore spark plug, who scored 13 points, had three steals, and kept the Hoyas defense from keying exclusively on the two seniors.

Georgetown did not go quietly, however. The Hoyas had an enormous advantage in size, one that came uncomfortably close to offsetting the Wildcats’ three trump cards: quickness, offensive firepower, and a deeper bench. Roy Hibbert was simply awesome underneath, and the 7-2 center exhausted Villanova’s thin frontcourt corps. Hibbert exhausted the efforts of Jason Fraser, Will Sheridan, and Dante Cunningham – all of whom rapidly sank into foul trouble, trying to guard him. (The trio logged a total of 68 minutes, but committed 11 personal fouls). Hibbert finished with outstanding numbers: 20 points and a dozen rebounds (both team highs), and even three assists. The sophomore pivotman was the main reason why Georgetown hung around for nearly the entire contest.

Moreover, Villanova’s bench did not provide a single point, as Fraser, Cunningham, and Shane Clark combined for 46 minutes. But the three took only one field goal attempt, although they did add eight rebounds (six from Fraser, including four on the offensive end).

Aesthetically, it was one of the most enjoyable games of the season, as both squads played very well. As noted, it was a season-low in turnovers for the Wildcats, with just three, and the Hoyas had only ten. But Georgetown had its standout individuals, in addition to Hibbert. Jeff Green had an outstanding all-around game, finishing with 15 points, plus half a dozen rebounds and assists, to boot. Ashanti Cook, who had struggled mightily in the two games against Villanova last year, finally broke through, scoring 16 points on 6-8 shooting.

The crux of the defeat for Georgetown was the virtually complete shutdown of Brandon Bowman, to which great credit should be given to ‘Nova’s defense. Bowman, who entered the game averaging almost a dozen points and five and a half rebounds per contest, was almost invisible on the stat sheet. The senior forward played only 26 minutes, scoring only four points, and taking only two shots (he had one three-point field goal, and made one of his two free throw attempts). And it wasn’t just a scoring drought: Bowman had no assists or rebounds, and committed three turnovers.

It was the third straight loss for the Hoyas, after an 8-2 start in Big East play. However, as noted in the preview, Georgetown (8-5 Big East, 17-7 overall) really needs only one more victory – regardless of the opponent – to secure a NCAA bid, thanks to their strong RPI ranking and signature victory over Duke.

It should be noted that the game was far closer than the ten-point margin of victory would indicate. As noted above, VU led by only two points at the half, and although the Wildcats took control early in the second half, Georgetown drew as close as ----- before succumbing. When the Hoyas made their final, gallant charge down the stretch, there was a great deal of discomfort in the Pavilion. It is likely that most of the VU faithful had not forgotten last season’s contest, Georgetown’s first-ever visit to the Pavilion, when the Wildcats could not hold an 11-point halftime advantage. Instead, Villanova fell, 66-64 – ironically, on the day in which the 1985 national title team was honored for its victory over Georgetown, by that identical score.

The latest set of Wildcat superlatives:

Villanova is now 11-1 in Big East play, the best start the school has ever posted in the 25 years it has been a member (the Big East is in its 26th season, but VU did not join until the second year.) The Wildcats are now 21-2 overall.

Radio broadcaster Ryan Fannon stated afterward that “this was probably the greatest regular-season week in Villanova history,” and he’s right. With the trifecta of the upset victory over top-ranked Connecticut, Jay Wright’s contract extension through 2013, and the vanquishing of the 17th-ranked Hoyas at the Pavilion in front of a raucous crowd, it would be difficult to imagine another seven-day period that was better, in the regular season.

This was Villanova’s 10th straight victory. Think about that, and let it sink in for a second. Ten in a row. And this is the second time that the Wildcats have achieved the feat this season, having won their opening ten contests as well. Villanova has not lost since January 14, when the Wildcats fell in Austin, Texas, to the then-#9 Longhorns.

Pending confirmation by the BE office, I believe that VU has now mathematically clinched a bye in New York City for the Big East tournament, even in the unlikely event that the Wildcats lost their last four BE contests. Georgetown and Marquette are now both 8-5, and Seton Hall is 7-5- but VU would win a tiebreaker against any of them due to head-to-head victories over all three. Thus, I conclude that Villanova could finish no lower than fourth, after today’s victory.

Most importantly, in Monday’s latest polls, Villanova should vault over both #3 Memphis and #1 Connecticut, to the #2 spot. The Wildcats, if they can keep the streak going, need only for Duke – the putative #1 when the polls are released – to stumble once in the ACC, to take the top spot for the first time during regular-season play,in VU history.

Into the Wayback Machine

This victory meant that Villanova has gone 21-2 for the first time in 68 years, and only the second time in school history. The last Wildcat squad to do it, was the 1937-38 team, which went 22-2 to start the season, the best start in school history.

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