Saturday, March 11, 2006

Ray Suffers Serious Eye Injury Early in Second Half, as 2nd-seeded, #2 Villanova Upset By 6th-seeded, #15/#16 Pittsburgh in BET Semifinals

It may have become a cliché, but as with all clichés, there is an element of truth to the idea that in sports, that tomorrow is guaranteed to nobody, that sometimes unexpected events can change a life forever, in a moment. To illustrate - on Friday night, Villanova entered the game with the explicit purpose of handing Pittsburgh a defeat and cruising to only its second BET title ever and the first in 11 years.

But in the second half of this game, the chief focus of attention (as it should have been) was the speculation as to the nature of the severe eye injury that Allan Ray suffered, during the first minute of the second half. Ironically, the Panthers who accidentally hit him the eye by Carl Krauser, who has known Ray for years, since they were both star players in the Bronx.

Ray was on the far side of the court, trying to control a loose ball, when Krauser, slapping at the ball, inadvertently hit in the eye. (Krauser later said that he thought that he hit Ray in the head, displaying a swollen index finger to the media.) ESPN’s cameras cut away for a long commercial break, and it grew increasingly ominous, as the number of commercials accumulated – i.e., the longer the commercial break, the more likely it was that it was a severe injury.

ESPN, to their credit, did not subsequently show the time span between the time of the injury and the time Ray was carried off the court on a stretcher. Dan Shulman and Len Elmore reported that Ray had been saying in an agitated tone, “I can’t see! I can’t see!” – and that Ray had been taken out of the venue to a nearby hospital (later identified as St. Vincent’s.)

When I heard that Ray had been taken to the hospital, I grew increasingly worried that Ray might have had significant damage to his sight. There is a medical staff available at the venue for all games, obviously – and the fact that they felt that he needed hospitalization was very chilling.

Fortunately, thank God, Ray will probably not have any long-term damage to his sight; VU announced that it was “a soft tissue injury” with no corneal damage. On Saturday, Villanova announced not only that Ray was day-to-day, but that he would be returning for the NCAA tournament. We now know with hindsight, that, as Jay Wright has said, “It looked a lot worse than it was.”

While basketball was obviously the least of our concerns this weekend, after such a frightening injury, the mere fact that Ray had been released from the hospital and listed as ‘day-to-day”, and returning for the NCAA tournament, seemed to be a refreshing sign that he would make a full recovery. (It was also parenthetically noted, according to an interview with Ray’s grandfather, that Ray had wanted to know the score of the game once it had gone final: clearly, probably not a topic of interest to someone in excruciating pain, who thought that he was permanently losing his right eye.

However, obviously, the Ray injury meant that a pall had descended over the rest of the contest, not only for the Wildcats, but also for the viewers at home. So the remaining 19 minutes of the second half were an extremely unpleasant experience, as we all waited for word about Ray’s health. Pitt went on to win 68-54, but nobody cared at that point.

For a moment, let’s return to the mundane matter of the game itself….before the injury took place.

Pitt had played very well in the first half, with its trademark physical play and hardnosed attack. The Panthers had built a 32-21 advantage by halftime. Villanova, for whatever reason, didn’t seem to muster the intensity it needed for victory. It seemed counterintuitive, because there would be great glory in capturing the BE tourney championship, and it was basically guaranteed that ‘Nova would take the top spot in the poll if they could get past Pitt and subsequently Syracuse (after Georgetown frittered away a 15-point halftime lead, as well as a significant lead in the final minute, to lose in the early semifinal game.)

Now that we know that Ray’s going to be OK, let’s go back to the more pleasant aspects of the evening – the game itself, and the NCAA implications.

The remaining 19 minutes, to a large degree, were garbage time. Villanova never really made a sustained charge at Pitt. Pitt ended up with an incredible 38 bench points (I’ve never seen any box score where the bench had 38 points, or anything close to that. In fact, the Pitt bench outscored –significantly – the Pitt starters, by a 38-30 margin. Two bench players – Antonio Graves and Levance Fields – were the two leading scorers for Pitt, with 18 points and 14 points, respectively. In contrast, none of the five starting Panthers reached double figures. (Graves averages only 18 minutes a game, and Fields 21 minutes per contest.)For its part, the Villanova bench had four points and four rebounds in a combined 45 minutes, and those statistics alone provide all you need to know about why Pitt won.

The only Wildcat to really shine in this contest was Randy Foye, the BE Player of the Year. Foye took the mantle of leadership, scoring 26 points and grabbing eight rebounds; he took 25 field goal attempts, trying to press in Ray’s absence; he made ten of them, including four triples on 14 attempts. Kyle Lowry was saddled with foul trouble, and even with Ray gone for virtually the entire second half, he only logged 27 minutes. He was the only other Wildcat to reach double figures, finishing with 10 points, three rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals, before fouling out.

Pitt played superbly, in all candor, and they deserved to win. The Panthers advanced to Saturday’s championship game for the fifth time in six years (it’s hard to imagine, back in the late 1990s, that the dynamic of the BE would yield such long-term success for Pitt, then one of the worst teams in the league.)

Obviously, the Ray injury meant that a pall had descended over the rest of the contest, not only for the Wildcats, but also for the viewers at home.

So now the waiting
game begins, for Ray’s injury…

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