Monday, March 20, 2006

#1 Villanova Ekes Out 82-78 NCAA Second-round Victory over #8 Arizona, Advances to Sweet 16!!!!!

By Craig Dimitri

In a tremendously thrilling contest, #1 Villanova somehow eked out a hard-fought, tenacious, 82-78 victory over #8 Arizona, in the second round of the NCAA tournament, on Sunday at the Wachovia Center. Despite the thrilling finish, the Wildcats never trailed in the contest, although they were tied four times. And thus, somehow Villanova has made it through the entire first two rounds, without ever trailing on the scoreboard.

However, this fact was of little consolation, while viewing the tournament game itself, when it seemed alarmingly likely, that VU might end up trailing at the only time it matters: when the buzzer sounds. It was nerve-racking to watch, as Arizona made a late charge, but enough clutch Wildcat free-throw shooting was sufficient to save the season. The Wildcats (now 27-4) will now advance to the Sweet 16 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they will take on old nemesis #4 Boston College, at 7:10 on Friday, March 24, 2006, on CBS.

The two squads of Wildcats battled back and forth to a more or less standstill, and VU held a slight 58-57 lead, after Friends’ Central product Mustafa Shakur drained a three to cut the ‘Nova advantage to a single point, with just over 11 minutes to play.

However, after Shakur’s shot, Villanova appeared to be pulling away, late in the second half. Over the next four and a half minutes, Villanova embarked on an 11-2 run, culminating when Will Sheridan – off a fantastic feed from Kyle Lowry, underneath– converted a layup with 6:37 to play. The Sheridan layup propelled ‘Nova’s lead to 69-59, and the crowd (now far more pro-Villanova, than it had been on Friday against Monmouth, with the departure of the other six schools’ fans) was rocking the Wachovia Center.

Arizona (whose season ended at 20-13), regrettably, was not dead. Over the ensuing five minutes, the other Wildcats went on a 13-7 run of their own, closing in on the home Wildcats, 76-72, when Shakur fed Radenovich, who stuffed it, closing the deficit to four with 2:23 remaining. On Villanova’s ensuing possession, Ray was stripped, driving into traffic. Claiming possession, Arizona charged the other way in transition.

On the following play, the game – and perhaps the seasons of both teams – pivoted.

Arizona had a four-on-three, going the other way – the ball was passed to Adams just inside the arc, who calmly drained a jumper to cut the lead to 76-74 (presumably). But there was a whistle. CBS analyst Jim Nantz speculated that it was a travel.

However, it wasn’t. In fact, the whistle had come because Arizona coach Lute Olson had unwisely decided to call timeout (when his own team had a four-on-three break going) – and the official granted it, just before Adams buried the jumper that would have cut it to two points, 76-74, with 1:55 to go.

CBS went to timeout with a chagrined picture of Olson. The Adams basket was disallowed, the Arizona timeout granted, the score restored to 76-72, VU, and Arizona received possession of the ball with 1:55 left. In one fell swoop, Olson had both taken his own team’s points off the board, and wasted one of his precious three remaining timeouts, for no discernible benefit.

On the ensuing possession, Adams drove the baseline, and was fouled on the side by Cunningham, with 1:37 to play. As the tenth team foul on ‘Nova, he was automatically entitled to two free throws. Adams made the pair of free throws. So Olson’s blunder didn’t matter, right?

Wrong! Although Arizona had now recaptured the lost territory (it was now 76-74, just as it would have been if the jumper had counted), it had wasted a timeout, as well as 18 precious seconds, in recovering those two points, which would have cost them nothing, if Adams’ shot had counted. (The only conceivable benefit that might have come to Arizona, would have been if the Cunningham foul had put Villanova into the double-bonus. But it didn’t, as his was the tenth foul, so any subsequent foul would have meant two shots; or if Cunningham had been in foul trouble – but he wasn’t.)

That timeout completely changed the complexion of the endgame. It would have permitted Arizona at least one more foul of Villanova, and subsequent possession, or a chance to go for a stop, rather than a foul, and only the basketball gods know what would have happened in those circumstances.

With 16.8 seconds to go, Radenovich laid it in to get back to 78-76, and Arizona was obviously forced to use its final timeout to set up its defense. Mike Nardi was unable to inbound the ball and called timeout. (During that timeout, aptly, the VU pep band played Kansas’ “Carry On, Wayward Son”, as ‘Nova was going to need some clutch foul shooting to survive the last 16.8 seconds.)

After Ray was fouled at 14.2 seconds, by Shakur, he hit them both. (Ironically, after Ray’s second free throw, Wright vociferously and frantically tried to call timeout, but the officials did not acknowledge it.) Shakur then drove, virtually uncontested, and scored with 8.5 seconds left (the score now 80-78, VU), and it would obviously have been useful for Arizona to have had the vanished timeout. But they didn’t.

There seemed to be an issue as to whether Shakur himself had tried to call timeout, anyhow (which would have been granted, a la Chris Webber and Michigan in 1993, and a technical foul would have been charged to Arizona). Instead, Wright called it, with 8.5 seconds left.

Ray was fouled, coming out of the timeout, with 7.1 seconds left, with ‘Nova still clinging to an 80-78 lead. Ray then hit another pair. Game over, since Arizona had no timeouts left. Williams hoisted a three-pointer which rimmed out (and it wouldn’t have mattered, down by four, anyhow.) Game officially over.

As documented above, the final 3:55 (the time after CBS returned from the final, under-four-minute timeout) were the most excruciating 235 seconds, all year, for any Villanova Wildcats fan. (The only stretch run that would even be competitive, would have been the final seconds against then-#1 Connecticut, but if ‘Nova had lost that game on February 13, the season obviously wouldn’t be over. On Sunday, in marked contrast, it would have been.)

It was all the more excruciating, because the initial developments of those 91 seconds began so favorably. VU sprang Randy Foye loose for a layup to boost the lead to 78-74 with 1:04 to play. Then Arizona’s Marcus Williams missed a triple, with VU pulling down the rebound with just 44 seconds to play.

Foye, a seasoned senior and Big East Player of the Year, was sent to the foul line for two shots, with 31 seconds to play, and a 78-74 lead. Unfortunately, he clanged them both. Arizona raced down the other way; Adams missed a layup, and Ivan Radenovic missed a layup – but on Arizona’s third chance on that possession, Radenovic finally put it in. 78-76, 18 seconds left. Arizona had no timeouts remaining, but VU couldn’t inbound the ball and Jay Wright had to use a timeout.

Wright set up a good play out of the timeout, ensuring that the ball went to Allan Ray, the team’s best foul shooter. Shakur fouled Ray with 15 seconds to go, and the senior drained them both, pushing the lead to 80-76. Shakur responded with a layup, cutting it back down to 80-78 with 11 seconds left. VU called another timeout.

Ray was fouled once again – and once again he delivered with two huge free throws. 82-78, with 10 seconds to go. When Williams missed a triple, the contest was over. Villanova would return to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season.

Obviously, with so many timeouts being called and so many free throws being taken, it was a very slow, deliberate final minute, and for a Wildcats partisan, there existed a nagging fear that this tremendous season might be wiped out by a couple of bricked free throws. But, fortunately, the basketball gods smiled upon ‘Nova once again. Minneapolis, here we come…

Speaking of the basketball gods…

The Lute Olson timeout, may very well be viewed in retrospect, as an omen, a positive augury for Villanova’s Final Four/NCAA title prospects. Nobody wins the NCAA tournament without luck. Of course, you need talent, but everyone has talent. (These #15 seeds wouldn’t be able to hang with the #2 seeds if they didn’t.) To win six games in a row, at three different sites, amidst arduous travel, against largely unfamiliar opponents, on short notice – is very difficult. And luck plays more of a role in it, than we often give it credit for.

Of course, none of us will ever know what would have happened, if that Adams basket had counted and the timeout restored. Villanova still would have had the lead, still was shooting well at the line, and it may not have mattered. ‘Nova might have won, anyhow. But conversely, it could have been the play that turned the contest around. Even though Arizona recovered the points, there’s a lot more momentum carried by hitting a transition jumper to pull within two, than shooting free throws to pull within two. Villanova could have become the only #1 seed to fall – on its quasi-home floor, no less – and the entire direction and history of the 2006 tournament would have changed completely.

Looking at the Second Round Victory More Dispassionately

Will Sheridan exploded once again, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The junior forward finished with one of the greatest games of his career, finishing with 16 points on 7-8 shooting, plus four rebounds. Arizona had a lot of size, and Jay Wright was forced to play a big lineup against the other Wildcats (Cunningham, Clark, Charles, and Fraser all saw more time than normal.) But Sheridan, as the keystone of the Villanova frontcourt, turned in an exemplary performance, one which more than any other, catapulted Villanova into its second Sweet 16 in as many years.

The backcourt of seniors further cemented their already storied place in Villanova’s illustrious history. Allan Ray scored a game-high 25 points on 7-16 shooting from the floor, including 4-9 from beyond the arc – and most importantly, 7-8 from the line. And he did it all in just 30 minutes. (20 of the 25 points came in the second half.)

In addition, when Ray converted the second of two free throws at the 4:42 mark of the second half, he scored his 2,000th career point at Villanova. He is just the seventh player in Villanova’s illustrious history to achieve the plateau. Next on the list: Ray is 19 points shy of tying John Pinone (1979-83), for sixth place.

Randy Foye had 24 points (including 20 in the first half) on 9-19 shooting, including 4-8 from beyond the arc, and added six rebounds. (The one flaw was his seven turnovers.)

Kyle Lowry had a decent contest, but was not the offensive spark that he has been in the past, probably due to Arizona’s towers in the Wachovia Center paint. He finished with eight points, with four coming at the foul line, dealt four assists, but had no steals.

However, the Wildcat most adversely affected by Arizona’s size was Mike Nardi. Since he couldn’t match up defensively, Nardi played just 10 minutes, with his minutes going to the four frontcourt bench players (Cunningham, Clark, Fraser, and Charles). Nardi scored three points on a single triple, and had three assists.

The Bench

Dante Cunningham made a huge contribution on the glass, playing 31 minutes and corralling nine rebounds, including four on the offensive end (plus one blocked shot). Despite its massive advantage in size, Arizona won the battle of the glass only narrowly (25-23) and Cunningham was a major reason why.

Shane Clark played 17 minutes, focusing on defense (he had four fouls in those 17 minutes), making two steals and blocking a shot.

Jason Fraser came off the bench briefly, logging five minutes, in which he had two points, one rebound, and one block.

Bilal Benn got in briefly to permit one of the guards to rest; he played just one minute.


Arizona played extraordinarily well; if they hadn’t faced the additional disadvantage of playing in Philadelphia, they probably would have won. The other Wildcats committed just nine turnovers, while forcing 14 VU miscues. They also shot 43.1% from the floor, and scored 78 points against Villanova, a team with a very stingy defense. In a statistical oddity, both teams shot a stellar 17-20 (85%) from the foul line. In another one, both teams achieved 28 field goals, although Arizona required 65 attempts, to Villanova’s 52.

Marcus Williams led the way for Arizona with 24 points, although he did so on just 6-18 shooting overall, while missing all six of his three-point attempts. Many of his points came at the line, where he went 12-15, while grabbing eight rebounds and dealing four assists.

Mustafa Shakur made his Philadelphia homecoming a memorable one, scoring 21 points on 7-11 shooting, and nailing all four of his three-point attempts. He also had three rebounds and five assists, playing in all but one of the 40 minutes.

Hassan Adams completed the Arizona triumvirate, posting 20 points on 9-19 shooting, four rebounds, four assists, and three steals.

Up Next for the Wildcats

Villanova will now take on #4 Boston College at the Metrodome. BC nearly fell to Pacific in the first round, as the #13 seed had a five-point lead at the end of the first OT and couldn’t finish, with the Golden Eagles rallying to win in double OT. Should ‘Nova escape BC, they would face either Florida or Georgetown in the Elite Eight.

Go Wildcats!

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