Thursday, March 08, 2007

#9 Villanova Falls to Top-Seeded Georgetown in Big East Tournament Quarterfinal Round, 62-57; Valiant Comeback After Hoyas Built 26-2, 35-10 Leads

Georgetown had never lost to Villanova in the Big East tournament, winning all three previous encounters with the Wildcats. The pattern continued today, as #9 Villanova fell 62–57, to top-seeded Georgetown in the Big East quarterfinals on Thursday afternoon, March 8, 2007, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It is ironic that despite the fact that both schools are long-time members of the Big East, this was only the fourth time that they had met in the tournament - and as we all know from the floor at Madison Square Garden, this was the 25th BE tournament at the Garden (and it had been in other locales in previous years).

The closeness of the final score is a great testament to Jay Wright, the coaching staff, and the Wildcats. At various points in the first half, Georgetown led by margins of (these are not typographical errors):
26-2 (over ten minutes INTO the game)
35-10 (Villanova trailed by 25 points at three different junctures)
and 37-18 at halftime.
But Villanova embarked on a strong run to start the second half, and remained within hailing distance throughout the rest of the contest. First, they drew as close as ten twice, trailing just 55-45 with 2:45 to go after a good post-up basket by Will Sheridan at the 2:43 mark. They also trailed just 56-47 with 1:22 after a Sumpter bucket, the first time the lead was in single-digits since it was (ironically) 9-0 to start the game. Sheridan went to the line with 1:20 to go, and made ends of a one-and-one after being fouled by Hibbert. 'Nova trailed just 56-49. Cunningham had to foul out to prevent what would have been an easy dunk by Hibbert in transition (great hustle by Cunningham to get back to be in a position to stop that basket and put Hibbert on the line).
Hibbert made both with 1:13 to play, to put the lead back to 58-49. However, Reynolds drove for a layup to cut it back to 58-51, and Georgetown, after some preliminary pressure, called timeout in the backcourt with 57.1 seconds to play. The Hoyas went for the "home run" pass, but the ball sailed well over the target's head, handing Villanova the ball, right back under Georgetown's basket, the optimal outcome for the Wildcats. Reynolds drove and drew a foul. Reynolds made one of two FTs to pull 'Nova to 58-52 with 53.7 seconds. The Hoyas immediately turned it over, and Reynolds had a great look at the triple that would have pulled 'Nova back to within three, but it didn't go down. Sheridan fouled DaJuan Summers over the back, and with 41.8 seconds to play, Georgetown led 59-52 after he made one of two free throws.
After Sumpter's initial shot was rejected out of bounds, he was fouled after the shot, from the perimeter with 27.9 seconds to play - giving him three FTs. The fifth-year senior made all three and it was 59-54. Sapp was fouled by Redding with 26.4 seconds left to play, going back to the line. He made one of two to push it to 60-54, but 'Nova couldn't score, losing the ball out of bounds when Sumpter's shot caromed off the rim and over the backboard with 10.5 seconds to go, effectively ending the game. After a celebratory dunk by Georgetown on the inbounds play, Sumpter made a buzzer-beater triple, cutting the final margin to a highly respectable 62-57. Not a bad outcome, when you started out down 26-2 and 35-10.
As noted previous, it is a credit to Jay Wright and his staff's inculcation of defense/rebounding, that the Wildcats not only made this score look respectable, but genuinely climbed back into the contest and actually threw a scare into Georgetown in the final minutes (the Hoyas had collapsed last season in the Big East tournament in a similar situation, with a large lead, and ultimately lost). The Wildcats have so bought into the Wright system that it is very, very difficult to blow Villanova out of the gym. Most other teams would have given up when they fell behind 26-2, but the Wildcats did not. What this means in the long run: Villanova develops a relationship for tenacity that will put all of its opponents on edge, until the final buzzer. Word has undoubtedly gotten around that "no lead is safe against Villanova", and that's an enormous advantage for Villanova's program.

It was the third time the schools had met this season, an increasing anomaly given the swollen size of the Big East. Villanova won at the Verizon Center on January 8; Georgetown won at the Wachovia Center on February 17, and now owns the neutral court victory as well.

The Hoyas, now 24-6 and ranked #9 in the AP poll, advanced to the semifinals, where they will face the winner of #4 Notre Dame/#5 Syracuse on Friday night. They are seeking their first BE tournament title since 1989. Roy Hibbert led with 14 points, with Big East Play of the Year Jeff Green adding a dozen points.

Villanova fell to 22-10 overall. Fortunately, the Wildcats are 100% certain of receiving an at-large bid on Selection Sunday, March 11, 2007. Thus, Villanova fans can safely root for the underdogs in college tournaments, knowing that it will not adversely affect the Wildcats’ chances.

Sumpter led with 18 points, with four Wildcats reaching double figures. Reggie Redding (the product of St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia) and Scottie Reynolds scored 11 points apiece, with Sheridan adding 10 points. Mike Nardi played only sparingly, as Reggie Redding started once more in his place. With the Wildcats now eliminated, they will not play again until Thursday, March 15, 2007 (the Ides of March), at the earliest. Hopefully with a full week of rest, Nardi will be back for the NCAA tournament. (It would also help if the Selection Committee gave ‘Nova a Friday/Sunday bracket, in order to provide an extra day for his injury to heal.)

Questions About the Bench
It seems clear that Wright is prepared to sink or swim with the following rotation, come hell or high water:
Backcourt - Reynolds, Redding, Nardi (if available)
Frontcourt - Sumpter, Shane Clark, Will Sheridan, Dante Cunningham
In fairness, this reflects a similar pattern in Wright's coaching style. As we get to March, he appears to have decided what combination has the best chemistry, and the rotation tends to contract to about seven or eight players. In addition, the games mean more in March than they do in January, and so it's logical that the bench players would get fewer minutes.
What about Dwayne Anderson, Bilal Benn, and Casiem Drummond?
They weren't injured. The fact that none of them saw the light of day - for even a single minute - in a game which had all of the following elements:
a) The opponent built a huge lead early;
b) The game was of little importance to Villanova, whose NCAA bid had been cemented after the win over Syracuse in the regular season finale;
c) Mike Nardi - the team's vocal leader, best ball-handler, best foul shooter, and the third of Villanova's three primary offensive weapons - was injured;
d) The opponent had a much bigger team;
If those three players didn't play, when all of those elements have been attained, then it seems safe to say that none of them will play in the NCAA tournament, unless a) a game-wrecking injury hits Nardi and/or any of the other six players in the rotation; b) severe foul trouble takes place.

I draw the inescapable conclusion that Wright believes that Villanova has the best chance to win with the healthy six plus Nardi, than it does with any of the bench players on the floor - and so accordingly, these seven are the Wildcats we're going to see (barring the two contingencies enumerated above).
Although the Wildcats are now out of the Big Eat tournament, Villanova Viewpoint's coverage doesn't stop there. Fom now through Selection Sunday, Villanova Viewpoint will be publishing “Bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble”, speculating about the fates of all the other bubble teams nationally: a group which, fortunately, does not include Villanova.

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