Saturday, February 10, 2007

Villanova, Sumpter Sink Pirates, 78-69, In Foul-Marred Duel to the Death

By Craig Dimitri

It was probably Villanova’s ugliest game of the season, a marathon battle of attrition which took well over two hours to decide, with heavy casualties on both sides. But the Wildcats eventually sank the Pirate Ship, 78-69, sending Seton Hall careening with its fifth straight Big East defeat. The Pirates are rapidly sinking to the bottom of the Big East ocean, falling to 3-7 Big East, 12-11 overall, and are not likely to finish in the top dozen of the 16-team league, thus missing the Big East tournament.
In contrast, Villanova improved to 5-5 Big East, 16-7 overall. The Wildcats are now mathematically assured of their ninth consecutive winning season and postseason bid (in the last eight seasons, Villanova has been to three NCAA tournaments and five NITs). Villanova has now sunk the Pirate Ship, in its last five pitched battles with Seton Hall.

The Pirate Ship’s sinking was primarily due to the heavy casualties, which their crew absorbed during the battle. Four Pirates were disqualified and two others finished with four fouls. Another Pirate had announced his decision to renounce his buccaneer status: the senior forward Mani Messy simply quit the team on Wednesday. With such a shorthanded crew, Seton Hall was unable to sustain the contest, and Villanova was not seriously threatened at crunch time. The Pirates were no match for the Wildcats on the glass, as Villanova pounded the Pirates on the boards by a greater than 2-1 margin, 41-20. Also, the Wildcats actually increased their Big-East-leading free-throw accuracy, shooting 34-41 from the line (83%). The big cannon for Villanova were – as is so often the case – seniors Curtis Sumpter and Mike Nardi. But a third heavy gun unexpectedly entered the fray: Dante Cunningham.

It was a typically superb afternoon for Sumpter: 21 points on 7-13 shooting, along with 10 rebounds for yet another double-double. Nardi had 16 points, with 11 of them coming from the free throw line, where he excels, shooting at an 88% clip; he was down a little bit, actually, going “just” 11-15 from the stripe. Nardi also dealt eight assists and grabbed four rebounds. But Cunningham’s offensive explosion was the stunner: 14 points on 4-7 shooting from the floor, and 6-7 from the line. All of these points came (along with a pair of rebounds and a block) in only 26 minutes of action. The greatest play was when he dunked over Pirate John Garcia in the second half, probably the most spectacular play of his Wildcat career.

Scottie Reynolds was mired in foul trouble, and so played only 23 minutes, making just one of his half-dozen field goal attempts. But he still reached double figures with 11 points, going 9-9 from the line, dealing four assists and pulling down four rebounds as well. Reggie Redding, the freshman from St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, continued to shine coming off the bench: eight points on 4-8 shooting, and half a dozen rebounds (four on the offensive end) in just 23 minutes.

For Seton Hall, Jamar Nutter matched Sumpter point-for-point, also hitting blackjack at 21 points on 7-14 shooting. Two other Pirates contributed 15 points: Eugene Harvey and Larry Davis.

The second-half battle was unexpectedly fierce, as Villanova had cruised to an easy 43-27 lead at intermission. The Wildcats appeared capable of quickly disposing the “outlaws of the seas”, and returning to the safe harbor of the Pavilion unscathed. Sumpter already had accumulated 16 points and seven rebounds, and perhaps the bench players could see some increased playing time.

The key story line was the Wildcats’ capture of the Pirates’ best player, Brian Laing. He entered the game averaging 16.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest. At halftime, he had been held scoreless, with two fouls. Pirate Captain Bobby Gonzalez did not return Laing to the floor to begin the second half, not inserting him until several minutes later, and Laing immediately committed his third foul. Laing eventually fouled out without scoring a single point, going 0-5 from the floor, with two rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes (he averages over 36 minutes a contest). “All Pirates, let ye be warned”: don’t mess with the Villanova defensive scheme, or meet a similar fate – i.e., becoming a nonfactor in the contest.

Villanova’s increasing problem in the second half was protecting the ball, as Seton Hall was able to plunder it from Villanova’s possession 18 times, ten of them in the second half. The Pirates turned over their treasure, so to speak, only eight times, and the turnover disparity was what kept the Pirates in the battle for so long. In addition, their long-range guns started to fire more accurately: the Pirates finished the contest shooting 9-19 from three-point range, 47%.

'Nova Notes

Will Sheridan’s minutes have now held steady in the teens, in each of the last three games. The senior played just 18 minutes today, finishing with four points, four rebounds, and three blocked shots, making significant contributions on defense. Bilal Benn played nine minutes and still managed to commit four fouls, five days after fouling out against St. Joseph’s at the Pavilion. Dwayne Anderson and Casiem Drummond each made cameo appearances of a single minute.

Series History

Villanova has now defeated Seton Hall five straight times overall, improving to 6-12 all-time at the Meadowlands. The Pirates haven’t successfully boarded Villanova since February 21, 2004, three seasons ago. After winning the 96th clash between the ancient rivals, the Wildcats now lead all-time, 59-37.

Next Up for the Wildcats

The Wildcats return to the Pavilion on Valentine’s Day, Wednesday, February 14, 2007, for a chance to easily defeat Cincinnati, the one-time powerhouse which is now among the weakest programs in the league. Tip-off is at an atypical 9:00 PM; I’ll have a full preview as game day approaches.

Questions? Comments? Information? You can contact Craig Dimitri at

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