Saturday, February 24, 2007

Condon, Chivalry, Seniors Reign, As 'Nova Has No Trouble Routing Scarlet Knights on Senior Day at Pavilion, Sending Senior Foursome Off In Style

The most important event in today’s Senior Day victory took place between a pair of walk-ons on opposing teams, long after the outcome had been decided. With 24 seconds to play, Scarlet Knight Jon Mimmo – a senior walk-on, who had been inserted down the stretch- intentionally fouled fellow walk-on senior Ross Condon at the top of the key. Mimmo committed this foul, explicitly to provide Condon a second chance at the line (he had missed both FTs in his first opportunity, which had come when he was fouled by Rutgers’ Jason Cherry with 49 seconds remaining).

Fortunately, Condon made the most of his second last-in-a-lifetime chance to score in his final Pavilion game as a Wildcat. Both shots were nothing but net, thrilling the jam-packed student section, as he took those free throws. We spend a lot of time – as is often regrettably necessary –dwelling on the misconduct of athletes, and it is a real pleasure to be able to write something positive that one athlete from an opposing school did for another – entirely out of compliance with a code of chivalry. And it is, of course, symbolically apt that the gesture came from a Scarlet Knight… The free throws represented the 10th and 11th points of Condon’s career, respectively. Hats off to him, a solid practice player who does all the grind-it-out stuff that all players experience, but so rarely gets a sip of the glory.

It’s tough to imagine a better send-off for Villanova’s quartet of seniors. The Wildcats had no trouble whatsoever, in routing the Scarlet Knights at the Pavilion, on Saturday, February 24, 2007, in a late-afternoon 4 PM tip-time. The final score was a lopsided 74-51, and RU was never in the game, except, ironically, when they took a 2-0 lead off the opening tap. Villanova dominated this game for the other 99.9% of its play, as thoroughly as they have beaten any opponent (Big East or otherwise) this year.

Curtis Sumpter, Will Sheridan, Mike Nardi, and Ross Condon were honored in traditional Senior Day ceremonies at 3:40. Condon symbolically started, as per tradition for Senior Day. The seniors were sent off in style, and everyone feels pretty good about the diminishing possibility of their returning to the Pavilion for anticlimactic NIT contests, come March. The Knights’ quest for the Big East tournament had ended on Wednesday, February 19, 2007, when the visiting UConn Huskies mathematically eliminated them from contention, so they did not have much fight in them.

However, the one genuine subplot was that regarding Fred Hill, the former VU assistant, now the reigning monarch in Piscataway. Hill arrived with Jay Wright’s coaching staff in 2001 and remained at VU through the 2003-04 season, when he left for Rutgers as an assistant to the eventually-fired Gary Waters – Hill was given the crown prior to this season. (Wright is now 3-0 against his former assistants, having defeated Joe Jones’ Columbia Lions in 2003 and Billy Lange’s Navy Midshipmen earlier this season.)

Villanova snapped a brief two-game losing skid, evening its Big East record at 7-7 and boosting its overall record to 19-9. Villanova had a high RPI of #16 entering the game, although the addition of the Rutgers’ RPI of 191 may mitigate any gain; it’ll probably hold steady.

The Scarlet Knights continued their submersion into the moat, falling to 10-18 overall, 3-12 Big East. They play in a very difficult home court in the RAC, and it is not surprising that the squad finished its Big East road slate at 1-7 (the only victory coming at last-place Cincinnati). Unless they upset Notre Dame in their home finale, they will not have beaten a single BE school, qualified for the conference tournament (home or away). For Rutgers, Marquis Webb led with a dozen points, with the best overall day coming from JR Inman, who finished with eight points and 14 rebounds in only 27 minutes.

Ironically, it was a freshman, Scottie Reynolds, who led the way for the Wildcats on Senior Day. The guard finished his inaugural Pavilion season with another outstanding performance: 25 points, six rebounds, three assists, and two steals. But all the seniors did well. Curtis Sumpter had 13 points, eight rebounds, and two blocked shots prior to fouling out. Mike Nardi had 11 points, seven assists and just one turnover. Will Sheridan turned in his usual solid defense – in 24 minutes, he finished with four points, three rebounds and one steal. But the big story line today was Condon.

Condon played till the first whistle, at 18:43, when he was replaced by Reynolds, to great cheering by the crowd. After RU sank two FTs to take an early 2-0 lead, VU went on an 8-2 run to force a timeout by Hill with 16:57 to play. VU led 10-2 at the under 16, and RU still had no field goals. 26 seasons as asst/associate head coach for nine different schools, a track record that makes Larry Brown look like a rooted, stalwart resident of the coaching fraternity.

RU’s first field goal came from Webb, at the 12:13 mark; it was the first time in nine tries that RU finally got one in. Webb returned on the next possession to hit a 3, making it 13-6 at 11:39 and JW called a timeout. Hill abandoned his man-to-man and switched to zone. It didn’t help. At 11:09, the under-12, VU still led 16-6.

By the under-8 timeout, VU had increased its advantage, boosting its lead to 24-7, with Rutgers’ Adrian Hill on the bench with 3 fouls. It was all downhill from there. RU made only two of its first 16 shots, and had enormous difficulty getting the ball inside. After they had finally done so on consecutive possessions, their team’s only big man, Hamady N’Diaye, injured himself with 3:01 to go, triggering the under 4 timeout with ‘Nova enjoying a huge 39-16 lead (these sorts of setbacks probably represent a typical day for Rutgers, during this long season). Reynolds already had 18 points, including five triples, by this point. (He had two more points that RU’s whole team.) RU had made just 5 of its first 25 shots from the floor.

The signature play of the game came when Rutgers committed a turnover on what should have been the final possession of the first half, giving ‘Nova the ball under its own basket with 3.8 seconds to play. Reynolds – reinserted by Wright for offense – took the inbounds pass, and dribbled coast-to-coast to lay it in at the buzzer and give ‘Nova a looming 45-19 lead at the half. Game over.

At 10:31 of the second half, came its best play: a dunk from Will Sheridan from Reynolds, making it 59-34 VU. The second-best of the second half had come shortly before, at the 11:29 mark: a steal by Reynolds off Anthony Farmer, and then an acrobatic loop-de-loop layup to convert it at the other end.

With Rutgers never remotely in the game, it became – as the basketball gods deemed to fit to bless Villanova with – exclusively a showcase for the departing seniors. To Wright’s credit, he re-inserted Condon well before the end, restoring him to the floor with 5:37 to play and ‘Nova up 68-39. At the 4:18 mark, Curtis Sumpter fouled out, giving him an opportunity to take his final bow; it was noted on the ESPN broadcast that he had been joined during the pregame Senior Day ceremony by trainer Jeff Pierce, who had been crucial to his successful rehabilitation, after missing all of 2005-2006 with severe knee injuries. Loud chants of “Cur-tis Sumpter! Cur-tis Sumpter!’ reverberated throughout the Pavilion. At the 4:07 mark, it was Will Sheridan’s turn for a big exit (ESPN analyst Rick Majerus shared an interesting fact – Sheridan’s choice of #50 is directly inspired by the fact that both of his parents are police officers, a play on the old television series “Hawaii Five-0”.)

Then it was Mike Nardi’s turn. Nardi had laid it in to make the score 72-42, just before the under 4 timeout. He was sent out to the floor after the timeout, but was then immediately removed by Wright, before play resumed, so that he could receive his ovation from the crowd. First, Nardi went over to Hill and gave him an embrace, before returning to the ‘Nova bench and embracing Wright. At that point, Wright emptied his bench for the final 3:04. Reggie Redding, Casiem Drummond, Dwayne Anderson, and Bilal Benn joined Condon on the floor. Frank Tchuisi replaced Redding – a regular member of the rotation – at the 1:58 mark, so every Wildcat saw action.

The clear goal, from the moment he returned at the 5:37 mark, was to get Condon the ball and permit him to score. And the team – and crowd, who loves Condon (Jay Wright joked with the crowd in advance, telling them that they put “too much pressure on me to put Russ Condon in”), was continually frustrated in pursuit of this goal. Condon missed four field goal attempts and two free throws. Finally, there came the chivalrous gesture by the aforementioned Scarlet Knight, Jon Mimmo, with just 24 seconds remaining in Condon’s career. After they both went down, Wright wisely pulled Condon out and sent in Redding, giving Condon a chance to make a glory-laden exit. He finished his Pavilion career, with this box score line:

Russ Condon - 6 minutes - 0-4 FG - 0-2 3FG - 2-4 FT - 2 rebounds (1 offensive)- 1 Turnover - 2 Steals - 2 Points.

Series History

Villanova now leads RU all-time, 23-7, and is also 6-1 vs. Rutgers, at the Pavilion.

Next Up for the Wildcats

The two games that could make or break the season: @ Connecticut’s Gampel Pavilion (the on-campus venue, a tougher place for a visitor than the Hartford Civic Center) on Wednesday, February 28, 2007, and the regular-season finale vs Syracuse at the Wachovia Center. I will have a comprehensive preview on the struggling Huskies…

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