Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Reynolds' 40-point Explosion at Storrs Echoes Kittles' 37-Point Masterpiece at Storrs, A Dozen Years Earlier

On a rare occasion, a college basketball player can carve out a niche for himself, within the annals of the school which he attends, and the program in which he participates. The seasons are short enough, and the rosters small enough, that one game is perhaps all that is needed to do so...

On Tuesday, February 28, 2007, in Storrs, Connecticut, Scottie Reynolds carved out that niche for himself, even by the storied standards of Villanova basketball. Villanova has one of the nation's most illustrious histories, and earning a spot in its pantheon is no small accomplishment. But Reynolds has done so. And in one of the richest ironies, he did it at Gampel Pavilion on the campus of the University of Connecticut - as opposed to the Hartford Civic Center, where Villanova arrives far more often to play the hated Huskies. In contrast, Gampel is a far more formidable venue for a visiting team. Reynolds' 40 points are the highest total than any opposing player has ever hung on the Huskies in Gampel (although in fairness, since they play most of their Big East games in Hartford, that skews the record a little bit). Ironically, it is the same hostile, archrival, enemy building that one of Villanova's greatest players, Kerry Kittles, once declared as his own personal realm - for one magical night, a dozen years (and ten days) earlier.

The Villanova media guide has a illuminating section known simply as " 'Cats of Distinction". Given the nature of 1990s and 21st-century NCAA basketball, it is possible to be included, even if the player was only on the Main Line for a single season: Tim Thomas (1996-97) and Michael Bradley (2000-01) are both included. And Reynolds will be there in a future Villanova media guide, even if he opts to test the waters of the NBA draft after his freshman season, as Thomas did (ultimately becoming a NBA lottery pick).

The performance which has vaulted Reynolds into an instant 'Cat of Distinction, was his astounding 40 points in Villanova's hard-fought 74-70 victory over the hated Huskies in Storrs. It was only the 14th time in Villanova's 86-plus seasons of intercollegiate competition, that any Wildcat had scored 40 or more points in a game - and Villanova has played well over 2,200 games, during its eight-plus decades of basketball. As with all majestic feats, context is everything. The victory absolutely secured a third consecutive NCAA at-large bid for Villanova: the Wildcats can now finish no worse than 8-8 in Big East play, and there is simply no way that the Selection Committee is going to leave out a Big East team with:

a) a strength-of-schedule in the top 10 nationally;
b) a RPI in the top 25;
c) its worst loss being at home to a good Drexel team;
d) a strong road/neutral record;
e) wins vs. Texas, @ Georgetown, and @ Louisville, among others-

even if the Wildcats lose to Syracuse and in the first round in New York City. Villanova unequivocally captured its NCAA bid with this victory.

And the fact that it happened against mighty-UConn, owners of two national championships in the last eight years, a #1 NCAA tournament seed a year ago, in their own building - that makes it all the sweeter.

The parallels with Kittles' feat are remarkable, if for no other reason that Villanova rarely travels to Gampel. They played there last season, but that was their first trip there in quite a while. Since Kittles' explosion in 1995, the Wildcats have seen Gampel only three times - the following season (a loss), and then did not return for a full decade, until the 2005-06 season, when they fell in a Big East showdown.

Before I begin, it should be noted that there are two vital distinctions between the 1995 and 2007 Villanova victories. First, and most importantly, Villanova upset top-ranked Connecticut at Gampel in 1995; this year, it defeated a demoralized and lethargic Huskies squad that - although ranked in the early part of the season - is going nowhere but the NIT (unless by some miracle they win the Big East tournament, which seems extraordinarily unlikely). The other is the fact that the 1995 game was a lopsided victory over that #1-ranked team, one that warrants inclusion in the creme de la creme of those 2,200-plus Villanova games - inclusion in the section entitled "Villanova's Greatest Games". Needless to say, aside from Reynolds' performance, a hard-fought, four-point victory over a NIT-bound UConn team won't be included in that section next year!

Those distinctions notwithstanding, let's go back to 1995, and look at Kittles' performance:

Kittles played all but one minute of Villanova's 96-73 victory on February 18 of that year. He finished with 37 points on 12-18 shooting overall, 5-10 from three-point range, and 8-9 from the foul line. He added seven rebounds and three assists. As would be expected in a lopsided victory, three other Villanova starters finished in double figures. Eric Eberz scored 23 points (including 7-9 from three-point range), Jason Lawson had 11 points on 5-9 shooting, plus five rebounds in just 22 minutes (he was in foul trouble), and Alvin Williams finished with a dozen points on 5-8 shooting, four rebounds, and eight assists. UConn's star, Ray Allen (it was quite ironic that Villanova would someday have a star guard named Allan Ray, albeit spelled differently) was held to just 11 points on 4-17 shooting. Surprisingly, Villanova led just 48-44 at the break, but rocketed out in the second half to win by 23.

Tonight was far different. Reynolds finished with perfect symmetry of his forty points, scoring 20 in each half. He blew away his previous high, the 27 points he scored against Notre Dame in Villanova's January victory at the Pavilion. Playing 36 minutes, Reynolds shot 12-25 from the floor, including 6-15 from beyond the arc and 10-14 from the line. He also had four rebounds, three assists, four turnovers, two steals, and officially played all 40 minutes (he fouled out with about 45 seconds to go while trying to draw a charge. That decision, his last play of the game, was the only fly in the ointment of an otherwise incredible performance, given that Villanova was trying to protect a lead and it was foolish for him to take his ball-handling and free-throw shooting skills off the floor, for the purpose trying to draw a charge.)

Of course, Reynolds did not do it alone. Seniors Curtis Sumpter and Mike Nardi, facing Connecticut for almost certainly the final time (odds are that the Huskies aren't going to be around very long in New York, and they couldn't face Villanova again until at least the semifinals anyhow), both made critical contributions to the victory. Sumpter had another double-double: 18 points and 10 rebounds, while committing just a single turnover in just 28 minutes (he had four fouls). He also delivered the game-saving play, swooping in for an offensive rebound and successful put-back to thwart UConn's last rally down the stretch. Villanova had been clinging to a small lead, after leading by 11 points with just over eight minutes to play: Sumpter's feat quieted the crowd and ensured that 'Nova would hang on. Nardi finished with a dozen points, including 6-6 from the line, which salted away the win.

It was sweet revenge for this senior class of Sumpter, Nardi, Will Sheridan, and Ross Condon, who had endured plenty of losses to the Huskies during their four years (and in Sumpter's case, five) on the Main Line. Tonight was only Jay Wright's third victory over the Huskies in 11 games. Even excluding the three losses to UConn in his first year at Villanova, 2001-02, before any of those players arrived- the Wildcats still entered tonight's game, having lost six of their last eight to the Huskies.

In another irony, UConn lost this game at the foul line. Had the Huskies shot even competently, let alone well, for the line, Reynolds' 40 points would have been for naught. Connecticut took 44 free throws and made just 24 of them, 54.5%, in a game they lost by just four points. Jeff Adrien led the Huskies with a double-double of 20 points and 10 rebounds, with Jerome Dyson matching Adrien's 20; both Huskies logged 36 minutes.

Villanova won its second straight contest and lifted its record to 8-7 Big East, 20-9 overall. The Huskies sank to 6-9 Big East, 17-12 overall, and will be heading to the NIT. It is a bitter finish for a team that was ranked #18 in the preseason AP poll, rose to as high as #12 in the Christmas Day poll, and remained in the rankings continuously through January 8, 2007. After being ranked #24 that week, they tumbled out of the polls for good. The Huskies can now finish no higher than 11th place in the 16-team league; they will be seeded either 11th or 12th at the Garden next week.

As for Villanova's seeding - that's way too complicated to determine at this point. Providence defeated South Florida tonight as well, which leads to a four-way logjam for 7th place between VU, PC, West Virginia, and DePaul. There is a complicated tie-breaking procedure (similar to the NFL provisions for playoff scenarios), and so it's too difficult to go into at present.

Next Up for the Wildcats

Villanova will have its quasi-home finale (anticlimactic after Senior Day against Rutgers on Saturday, February 24, 2007) at the Wachovia Center against Syracuse (10-5 Big East, 21-8 overall). Both schools have secured bids with victories this week, Villanova on Wednesday and Syracuse with a big upset of Georgetown on Tuesday. However, the game will help to determine Villanova's seeding for both the Big East and NCAA tournaments, and the Wildcats would like to avenge the 75-64 defeat at the Carrier Dome on January 13, 2007. There will be a comprehensive preview of the Syracuse game soon, as well as an updated "Bubble, Bubble, Toil, and Trouble", in light of this week's results.

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