Saturday, March 03, 2007
On Saturday, March 3, 2007, Villanova wrapped up its regular-season Big East schedule - not to mention its-already-in-the-mail NCAA tournament invitation - by defeating Syracuse, 78-75, at the Wachovia Center. The hero was Curtis Sumpter, who wrapped up his Philadelphia career with a truly tremendous performance: 20 points, a career-high 15 rebounds, while playing all 40 minutes.
Although the game belonged to Sumpter, there were other heroes, too. Dante Cunningham scored a career-high 21 points to go with eight rebounds, while Scottie Reynolds - fresh off his 40-point detonation @ Connecticut on Wednesday - added 22 points and six assists. Although he did not score, Reggie Redding - from St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia - played stellar defense on Syracuse's Demetris Nichols, the Big East's leading scorer. Assigned to Nichols in the second half, Redding hounded him relentlessly and disrupted his offensive rhythm, holding Nichols to just seven points for the vast majority of the game. Nichols finished with a dreadful 2-13 shooting performance from the floor.
Redding also expertly handled the inbounding chores, a skill at which he excels - he played 25 minutes, dealing three assists and committing no turnovers. And ball-handling was a priority, since Mike Nardi turned his ankle in the first half, developed back spasms, and would play less than two minutes in the second half, finishing with just 13 minutes overall. (He was highly visible, exhorting his teammates on the bench while limping on his ankle.)
Although Villanova had little to fear from the Selection Committee heading into the finale, the victory over another NCAA-bound team in Syracuse - and the 9-7 finish in conference play - makes it 100% certain that the Wildcats will appear on CBS's graphics on Selection Sunday, March 11, 2007. It will make the Big East tournament much less bothersome for both the team and the Villanova faithful. The Wildcats finished the regular season with a 21-9 overall record. It was their third straight win and their seventh in the last nine games - they are peaking at the right time.
As for Syracuse - the Orangemen finished also with a 21-9 overall record, 10-6 in conference. It ended Syracuse's five-game winning streak, which had culminated with an upset of Georgetown on Monday that had assured them of a NCAA bid.
With Nichols hampered by poor shooting on open looks in the first half - and Redding's relentless defense for most of the second - the 'Cuse had to look to their other perimeter shooter, Eric Devendorf. His accuracy nearly brought them a victory: he scored a career-high 33 points on 12-22 shooting. Nichols's dozen points meant that despite the 75 points (a very high number for a Villanova opponent), there were only two Orangemen in double figures.
Incredibly, Devendorf's 33 points are not in fact the record for a Syracuse player against Villanova in a single contest. That distinction belongs to Lawrence Moten, who dropped in 36 points to help Syracuse defeat Villanova, 89-87, in OT at the old Spectrum, on Valentine's Day, 1995 - a loss suffered by the Kerry Kittles/Jason Lawson/Alvin Williams/Chuck Kornegay/Eric Eberz era team. (Although Devendorf's record does stand, at least, as the Syracuse record for points against 'Nova in the new building.)
Villanova improved to 3-4 against Syracuse all-time in the "new building", i.e., the Wachovia Center, under its various titles; it was the second straight victory there for the Wildcats, who also won the 2006 contest. The Wildcats also avenged their earlier loss to the 'Cuse this season, 75-64, which took place at the Carrier Dome, on Saturday, January 11, 2006.
It was a marvelously entertaining game, filled with exciting dunks, transition buckets, and reached its denouement with a genuinely bizarre - but fortunately happy ending. However, had it cost 'Nova the victory, would have entered Villanova lore along with ODU in 1994 and the Miami buzzer-beater in 2000. But we'll get to that later.
Villanova could have saved a lot of agony by jumping out to an early lead. Syracuse gave them plenty of chances to do so: the Orangemen missed 15 of their first 17 shots and appeared quite lethargic - perhaps a letdown after the big win over Georgetown five days earlier. 'Nova led 11-3 in the early going.
However, Syracuse erased the deficit and climbed ahead, 21-19, with less than eight minutes to go in the first half. They took a resounding 35-31 lead into the locker room at intermission, when Paul Harris issued a thundering dunk as the half ended. The key statistic at halftime was the 13 offensive rebounds the 'Cuse had secured, way too many.
Devendorf threatened to lead a rout after play resumed. He scored eight straight points to boost Syracuse's lead to 45-35 at the 16:43 mark; for a team to score 10 points in less than four minutes against a Jay Wright defense: bad scene. For one guy to score eight in a row, that much worse.
The play that turned around the momentum came from Redding. With Syracuse leading 47-43, Redding missed a triple, but recovered his own rebound and masterfully shoveled it to Sumpter in the lane, who laid it in to cut it to 47-45 at the 12:57 mark. Soon after, Villanova retook the lead - and in retrospect, the victory - shortly after this dazzling sequence:
After diving to the floor to corral a loose ball, Redding called timeout while down - and Paul Harris, disregarding the same whistle that the other nine players heard, dove after him anyhow. He was whistled for a technical, and Reynolds' two free throws tied it at 49. The crowd got back into the game due to the confrontation, and was even more thrilled by what happened next. After a layup by Devendorf put SU up 49-47, Reynolds broke away for what appeared to be an easy layup, but his shot was swatted in spectacular fashion by Harris, coming from behind. Syracuse raced back down in transition - and Cunningham made an even more spectacular block from behind. Back down the other way - again - Reynolds lined up and canned a three to put 'Nova up 50-49! The crowd exploded, and was a major factor for the remainder of the game.
Villanova steadily built its lead, and led by as much as 69-59 with 2:22 to play, so it really should not have been heart-stopping at the end. Within this span were two triples by Sumpter, both of which brought down the house for the gallant fifth-year senior. During a Syracuse timeout, Montell Jordan's extremely-catchy, 1995 single "This Is How We Do It" reverberated throughout the building, and it was the perfect song for that situation: the Wildcats in control down the stretch, going to the NCAA tournament.
Another factor which contributed to 'Nova's steady lead as the clock ground down on Syracuse: the Wildcats' crack foul shooting was even better today - in fact, it was the margin of victory. Villanova's free throw percentage was an incredible 93.8% (29-32), made even more remarkable by the long absence of Nardi, the team's best shooter from the line.
Which leads us to the bizarre ending:
Villanova had a put-it-in-the-vault, 78-72 lead, after Reynolds hit two free throws with 7.4 seconds remaining, and Syracuse out of timeouts. All Villanova needed was to get out of the way and victory was assured. Sumpter - in really his only bad decision of the day - opened the door to what could have been disaster. He contested a drive to the basket by Syracuse's Josh Wright, when he should have just allowed him to have it (it didn't mean anything!). Wright went to the line for two shots with 3.9 seconds left, trailing by six. After making the first, the officials called Cunningham for an intentional foul, while trying to go for the rebound on the second shot (which went in, cutting the lead to 78-75). Replays indicated that while Cunningham was certainly guilty of a foul, it was neither flagrant nor intentional, and should not have been called as such.
Since it was an intentional foul, Syracuse received two more foul shots and the ball - and they were only down by four at this point. If they made both free throws, they'd be down just two with the ball at half-court with almost four seconds remaining. Nichols missed the first, made the second - giving the 'Cuse the ball on the side down 78-75. They ran a brilliant play, without the benefit of a timeout - Nichols had a wide-open look for the three, but missed; there was enough time for Andy Rautins to recover the rebound and launch his own three, which would have counted had it gone in (and it came alarmingly close to doing so). And so 'Nova nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
But all's well that ends well. In this contest, there were two other unusual plays worth recording:
Syracuse's Terence Roberts executed an incredible, left-handed dunk off a Nichols' missed triple, that was gravity-defying, at the 4:59 mark. It was really something.... The other was the presence of Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb (the former Syracuse standout and also a basketball player for Jim Boeheim) representing his alma mater, with a very impressive orange-plaid ensemble, complete with hat. Reynolds, while diving for a ball, ended up in the seats at McNabb's feet (and given McNabb's season-ending knee injury last season, it would have been remarkably ironic for McNabb to have been injured - by a Villanova player - during the seemingly safe activity of watching his alma mater hoop it up.) And one final note: Casiem Drummond was not at the Wachovia Center, as he was under an apparent one-game suspension by Wright for a minor violation of a team rule.
Afterwards, Sumpter - when asked about the NCAA tournament - pointed out that he hasn't had the opportunity to participate much in the Wright Renaissance, as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned: he's only gotten to play in one full tournament game, in 2005, as he was injured halfway through the second-round victory over Florida, and in 2006, he had to take a medical redshirt, and thus didn't participate at all in the Elite Eight run.
Next Up for the Wildcats
Despite finishing 9-7 in a 16-team conference, Villanova can finish no higher than 9th due to various tiebreakers with other 9-7 teams. At the Big East tournament in New York City, they will play either in the 7/10 game on Wednesday, March 7, at 7 PM, or the 8/9 game at noon. Marquette's victory over Pittsburgh on Saturday night has ensured that Villanova's opponent will be either West Virginia or DePaul. The only question left to be determined is whether Villanova will be 9 or 10; it depends on the Providence/St. John's outcome on Sunday, March 4.
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