On Monday night, January 29, at the Wachovia Center, Villanova suffered a significant setback to its NCAA hopes, failing to knock off a #7 Pitt squad which had left its “A” game back in the hotel. The Wildcats eventually fell, 65-59, failing to maintain a 28-23 halftime advantage. Pittsburgh (#4 RPI) is now off to its best Big East start in school history, at 8-1 Big East (1st place), 20-3 overall. Pitt has now won 20 or more games in six straight years, equally unprecedented in school history. Villanova (#16 RPI) dropped its second straight contest, falling to 3-5 Big East (tied for 9th place, out of 16 teams), 14-7 overall.
Why Did Pittsburgh Win?
Levance Fields. The superb point guard exploded on offense, rocking Villanova’s defense for 20 points on 6-12 shooting.
Antonio Graves. He recorded 13 points on 4-8 shooting, including a rally-breaking triple, down the stretch.
Free throw shooting. The Panthers went 15-18 from the line, and prevented Villanova from rallying down the stretch by sinking their foul shots.
Aaron Gray. The center had yet another double-double, 14 points, on 6-7 shooting, to go with 10 rebounds.
To paraphrase, it was all about the Benjamin – Keith Benjamin, in particular. One of Pitt’s least-heralded players - the ninth man in their nine-man rotation- he canned three triples, all at crucial points in the game. He finished with nine points in just 11 minutes of action, and played a key role in the outcome. ‘Nova didn’t have anyone off its bench, with a similar impact.
Scottie Reynolds’ inability to find his shot. Reynolds did not score until the second half, finishing with 8 points on just 3-9 shooting.
Villanova’s turnovers – 16 of them.
Villanova’s struggles from three-point range. With no post player available to challenge Gray in the paint, the Wildcats fell back on what they do best: launch the long ball. But they were only 5-19 (26.3%) from beyond the arc.
Villanova’s difficulty scoring, of course, had everything to do with the relentless Pittsburgh defense. Villanova was Pitt’s 20th opponent (in 23 games) to be held under 70 points; ‘Nova didn’t even come close, with 59. This was after a 63-point output in the Saturday, January 27, loss at Notre Dame. Curtis Sumpter- still relegated to coming off the bench due to the bone bruise in his shin - had a decent night, scoring a game-high 21 points. His 4-13 from the floor was mitigated by the fact that he got to the foul line often,taking 15 free throws and making a dozen. But Mike Nardi – whose late flurry helped ignite a brief comeback –was the only other Wildcat in double figures, finishing with 10 points on 4-10 shooting (and only 1-6 from three-point range).
The Game Itself
Villanova played very spirited defense throughout, despite having the less talented team. The Wildcats won the first half 28-23, and could easily have led by more. Pitt did not have much success, in feeding the ball inside. The Panthers took only three free throws in the entire half (all of which they made), and took 13 three-point attempts, of which they made four. Villanova did a masterful job of avoiding foul trouble, into which they had gotten mired in South Bend on Saturday. The Wildcats had only two fouls in the half, compared to nine for Pitt. Reynolds had been literally a non-factor in the first half, held scoreless on five field goal attempts. But ‘Nova still held a 28-23 lead, and one in which the ‘Cats had really dominated play. They pressed often during the first half, starting out in a 1-2-2 three-quarter court press, and forced a lot of Pitt turnovers (11). Pitt scored two field goals in the last 9:30, and was in fact fortunate to be down only five at intermission..
Conversely, Villanova had gotten the ball inside fairly easily, given a player of Gray’s caliber. Late in the first half, VU’s frontcourt had scored 24 of the team’s 26 points - and immediately after, the team forced a 35-second violation due to quality defense (Pitt couldn’t get the ball into the paint). When Ronald Ramon committed Pitt’s 10th turnover at the 1:58 mark, the Panthers had six assists against 10 turnovers – a shoddy performance for a team which came into the game leading the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. At the 1:19 mark, Pitt called a timeout, the ball trapped against the sideline. ‘Nova had the momentum, led by Sumpter; he had 14 points on 4-9 FG shooting at that point. The rest of the team also had 14 points, but on 5-17 FG shooting.
The half ended well: Dante Cunningham played stunning defense on Gray, to whom the ball had been dished. Gray was going up for a slam when Cunningham simply blocked the ball on the way up, and the ball bounced to ‘Nova. But on the other end, Nardi skidded in the paint while trying a fast break with 5.2 seconds left and traveled, returning the ball to Pitt. Nonetheless, ‘Nova had ended the half on a 15-6 run, and seemed to be in good shape for the upset. There were other plays that indicated that Villanova was on the move, half a step quicker than Pitt.
At one point in the first half, the ball came loose when VU was on offense, going to the east basket; the ball squirted out to the other end, sort of like a gutter ball in bowling, heading straight for the endline. Gray raced down to the other end to corral it, but had to bat it back into play, like a punt coverage man in football trying to prevent a touchback. He was aiming it to Fields, who then, defended by someone (Cunningham, possibly), missed the two-foot shot, underneath, which VU rebounded. Such tenacious defense gave some indication that the Wildcats were bringing appropriate levels of intensity, all 94 feet.
Another illustration was on a subsequent possession, when ‘Nova got two offensive rebounds, and then Shane Clark tipped it in, on a highly athletic leap to the basket. Still later, Villanova’s press forced a turnover from Fields (a rarity). Now with possession, there was an assist by freshman Reggie Redding (a graduate of Philadelphia's St. Joseph's Prep, the author's alma mater), due to his dishing it to Sumpter, who drove down the lane for a traditional 3- point play. Tyrell Biggs had committed the foul, Pitt’s 7th at around 6:20 in the first half. Pitt was sputtering on both ends of the floor. Pitt already had eight turnovers to VU’s four, at the under 4-timeout with 3:53; both teams were shooting 38% or lower, and ‘Nova led, 26-20.
Early in the second half, it appeared to be going well for the Main Liners. Reynolds sprinted out on the fast break, about 18:00, and after beautiful ball movement around the perimeter, it was fed back to Reynolds for a crowd-igniting 3. Gray answered with a traditional three-point play, but Sheridan scored underneath, gliding past Gray’s defense, to give ‘Nova a 35-27 lead. (The Wildcats would be outscored 38-24 the rest of the way, unfortunately – that was probably the high point for Villanova tonight.) Gray countered at the other end, and it was 35-29 at the under-16 minute break, at 15:48. Mike Cook, the Philadelphian Friends Central product, was 0-6 from the floor, early in the second half… The game started to be marked at that point by wild shooting at both ends – ESPN’s Jay Bilas stated something to the effect that “in the second half, both teams are shooting, like the ball’s a grenade with the pin pulled out," and he was right.
Pitt started to hum, though, and the baskets started dropping. They stopped committing fouls, too. Pitt was hit for their first foul of the second half at the 12:59 mark – after 9 PFs in the first half. The ‘Nova lead melted as easily as snow. At 12:21, Jay Wright was forced to call a timeout to break the Pitt run – the Panthers reclaimed the lead at 38-37 at this point, an 11-2 run. The game seesawed back and forth, and the Wildcats still had it tied with under seven minutes to play, 47-all. The huge crowd was highly engaged in the game and ‘Nova still had a great opportunity for an upset. But the ‘Nova defense collapsed, allowing Pitt to score 18 points in the last six minutes and change, starting with a Fields fastbreak to give Pitt a 49-47 lead with 6:03 to play, and take a hard-fought victory, back to western Pennsylvania.
One unusual distinction for this game: the lettuce incident. I was not at the Wachovia Center, but the ESPN broadcasters indicated that the reason why play was delayed substantially following the under-8 TV timeout in the second half (in a neck-and-neck game at that point) was that Sports Marketing had decided to stage some sort of promotion, with students throwing heads of lettuce into a shopping cart. (If any attendee can describe this promotion in more detail, that would be very informative. Please e-mail me…) This promotion had predictable results – lettuce heads exploding on impact with the Block V- customized hardwood.
This led to the surreal sight of the three officials, with help from the VU cheerleaders - kneeling to peel individual pieces of lettuce off the hardwood. (The NCAA thought the traditional streamers from the Palestra bleacher were too dangerous to continue – what would they think of students firing heads of lettuce onto the court?) Whatever happened, for example, to the half-court shot for a prize, during timeouts? Or Villanova trivia?
Sometimes, you lose to the better team. Pittsburgh is better than Villanova right now, as can be expected when a program loses three players to the NBA. Nonetheless, Pitt was clearly not at its sharpest tonight. The Wildcats had a genuine opportunity to take out a top-10 team, a win that probably would have all but secured a NCAA bid had they been able to come up with it. But it didn’t happen.
After two games in three days, the Wildcats will have five days back on campus, returning to the Wachovia Center on Saturday afternoon, to take on Louisville – coincidentally, the Cardinals received seven votes in today’s AP poll to ‘Nova’s eight. I will have a full preview later this week.
Questions? Comments? Information? You can contact Craig Dimitri at firstname.lastname@example.org.