By Craig Dimitri
As with all enchanted seasons, some contributions must come from an unexpected source. Accordingly, #2 Villanova’s secret weapon on Thursday night was freshman Dante Cunningham. With 3.2 seconds to play in a game deadlocked at 72, Jay Wright – using the element of surprise – explicitly designed an inbounds play to free up the wingman – all alone – under the hoop in the waning seconds. Cunningham’s layup – only his second basket of the contest - was the difference between:
the Wildcats escaping Cincinnati, clutching a hard-fought two-point victory;
being forced to play an extra period on a hostile floor, with the sold-out crowd cheering raucously for its underdog team, which had erased a seemingly secure double-digit Villanova lead, late in the second half, in a gallant flurry.
While Cunningham’s layup was the signature play of this victory, Randy Foye had yet another tremendous game. The senior finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds, both game-highs.
It wasn’t pretty, but the bottom line is that a win’s a win – and it was Villanova’s 22nd of the season, against only two defeats- a beautifully symmetrical 22-2 record, one which it hasn’t seen in decades. Looking at the historical record - matched the 22-2 record put forward by the 1937-38 squad, the final season prior to the creation of the NCAA tournament – and so it places these Wildcats in the elite of Villanova’s rich hardwood traditions. And returning to the 21st century - it also puts the ‘Cats at 12-1 Big East, and in the driver’s seat for the top seed in Madison Square Garden. It was the Wildcats’ 11th consecutive BE victory – which is now the longest BE winning streak since VU joined the conference in 1980-81, the BE’s second year in existence.
For Cincinnati, it was an emotionally devastating loss, as the upset almost certainly would have gotten the Bearcats a secure bid into the NCAA tournament. Instead, they fell to 7-7 Big East, 18-10 overall, and will be sweating it out on Selection Sunday, hoping to be the 7th, or 8th, (or perhaps even 9th) conference member announced as an invitee. Eric Hicks led the final rally, as UC went on a 16-4 run down the stretch to tie the game, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion – Villanova was the highest ranked team UC had ever played in its building, now nearly two decades old. Hicks posted 21 points and nine rebounds, both game-highs.
Villanova now must turn its attention to the rematch with #4 Connecticut, after upsetting the hated Huskies on Feb. 13 at the Wachovia Center. Airing at 2 PM on Sunday, Feb. 26, the CBS-televised contest will likely be the showcase game of the national college basketball scene. If the ‘Cats can sweep UConn, a Big East regular-season title – and a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament – would be almost assured.
Villanova does have an outside chance of climbing to #1 in the rankings in Monday’s poll. Fellow Big Five member Temple will face #1 Duke at the Wachovia Center; if the unranked Owls pull an upset, and VU tops the Huskies in Storrs, ‘Nova would be the top-ranked team in regular-season play, for the first time in school history.