Wednesday, March 11, 2009

#11 Wildcats Sink #6 Pirates in Epic Thriller, 61-60, in Big East Tournament Opening Round

In an exhilarating contest, 11th-seeded Villanova upset 6th-seeded Seton Hall, 61-60, in a Big East opening round contest at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Wednesday night. The victory snapped a five-game losing streak
for Villanova, which hadn't won at all since Feb. 18, and hadn't won outside the
Pavilion since Feb. 5. Randy Foye scored the winning basket with just 3.6
seconds to play, and Andre Barrett's desperation long-distance three at the
buzzer went awry. Foye's basket was made possible by Seton Hall senior Marcus
Toney-El, who airballed a second free throw after missing his first attempt off
the front of the rim, with 16.2 seconds to play.

It was the first time Villanova had confronted the Pirates in the Big East
tournament since 1991, when an underdog Villanova squad (the #8 seed out of nine
teams, despite a respectable 7-9 record) made it to the semifinals by winning
twice, before falling to Seton Hall, 74-72. And despite both schools being
among the first nine schools in the conference, this is only the third time
that they've met in the conference tournament.

Foye certainly seemed to push off Barrett on the game-winning drive, and
wasn't whistled for it. But since 'Nova has obviously suffered its share of
adverse calls this year, it can accept the bad calls that come in its favor as well.

Allan Ray led the Wildcats, playing all 40 minutes and finishing with 15
points, although Seton Hall did a masterful job of shutting him down after
halftime; he scored all 15 in the first half and shot 0-8 in the second. Foye
finished with 13 points, including the biggest two at the game's conclusion.
Although Foye scored two fewer points, he had a much better shooting night than Ray:
6-9 as opposed to Ray's 5-16. And Sumpter also matched Foye's 13 points and
added six rebounds before fouling out late in the game. Ray and Sumpter
garnered third-team all-Big East honors earlier this week. Jason Fraser had eight
points and seven boards in just 27 minutes, but his biggest contribution - by
far - was a devastating rejection of Barrett's drive to the hoop with 22. 7
seconds to go, a play that could easily have decided the game.

For Seton Hall, Kelly Whitney led all scorers with 20 points, and also
grabbed eight rebounds. Whitney, a 56% free throw shooter this season, went 10-12
from the line as Villanova tried, with little success, to curb his inside
presence. And he did it, despite suffering a head wound in the first half -
Whitney received five stitches in his forehead at halftime. Barrett led the team
emotionally, scoring 15 points and recording seven assists, in a gallant effort
in which he played all 40 minutes. He was the catalyst for the Hall all
evening and seemed to want the victory more than any other player on the floor. He
was the first player off the floor after the game ended in dramatic fashion.
The Hall scuffled to a horrible shooting night, thanks to strong Villanova
defense: the Pirates fired their cannon at a terrible 35% clip and an amazingly
bad 15% from three-point range, which usually means you don't have the chance
to win the game on the final possession. The Hall stayed in the game by
exploiting Villanova miscues and hustling in general. Seton Hall notched 20
second-half points, compared to nine for 'Nova and scored 15 points off turnovers
compared to Villanova's 10. The Wildcats turned the ball over 16 times,
including what appeared to be a season-ending mistake in the final seconds, when Mike
Nardi fell when he went to receive an inbounds pass coming out of a timeout.
The 'Cats were trailing 60-59 and probably planned to hold the ball for the
last possession.

The Wildcats avenged a frustrating 70-68 loss at Seton all on Feb. 21, when
the 'Cats overcame a late, double-digit second-half deficit, only to have
victory tantalizingly taken from them again. Villanova evened its record to 15-15
overall; the Wildcats had finished 6-10 in Big East play, its worst mark in
conference competition since 1993. Seton Hall remains in good shape for the
NCAA tournament, in spite of the first-round exit. The Pirates' overall record
is 20-9, and they finished the BE regular season at 10-6, four games over .500.
In the all-important RPI, they ranked #21. All of that adds up to a
near-lock at-large bid, but the Pirates will, nonetheless, be sweating out Selection
Sunday - after last season's experience, when they were unjustly passed over
by the NCAA Selection Committee. The Pirates' quest for the NCAA treasure has
been put on hold, at least for a few days.

The victory kept Villanova's season alive, as well as their hopes for the
NIT, which would have been nil with a defeat. Entering the tournament, the 'Cats
needed to win at least one, and probably two, games in New York to qualify
for NIT consideration. Although most reports have indicated that Villanova must
win two games in New York for consideration, the NIT has occasionally pulled
in major conference teams who are one game under .500 after their conference
tournaments, presumably on the theory that a "postseason" conference tournament
defeat shouldn't cost you a bid.

Thus, Villanova's current postseason scenarios: Villanova will face
3rd-seeded Providence, ranked #20 nationally, at around 9:00, 9:15 PM Thursday night
a quarterfinal game. If the 'Cats defeat Providence, the NIT bid is
virtually assured, as they will then be 16-15 (and could conceivably win even more
games), and a tournament loss won't drop them below .500. If PC tops the 'Cats,
however, don't entirely give up hope for the NIT, due to the contingency
outlined above. The bid might still come anyway. (In contrast, had there been a
loss to Seton Hall tonight, there would have been NO chance of a bid, since
Villanova would have finished the season at 14-16, two games under .500.)

In a giddily optimistic view, the Wildcats could secure arguably their most
improbable NCAA bid ever by actually winning the conference tournament.

Simply put, it was a great game. Villanova was slightly in front, for most
of the game, but the lead began seesawing wildly down the stretch: there were
eight lead changes in the final six minutes of the contest. After leading 7-6
at the 14:22 mark, Seton Hall didn't see the lead again until the 5:34 mark of
the second half, when Kelly Whitney converted a one-and-one to put the
Pirates up 52-51. The Wildcats led by as many as ten points at one stage, 25-15,
after Allan Ray hit two out of three free throws with 5:49 to play in the first

After falling behind by ten, Seton Hall chipped away at the lead. Villanova
lost a bit of momentum just before halftime, when leading 34-30 after a basket
from Chris Charles. After playing solid defense while the Pirates played for
the final shot of the half, Whitney tossed up a putback at the buzzer to cut
the deficit to just two.

The Wildcats clearly rode Ray's hot hand in the first half. Ray shot 5-8 and
scored 15 points, and seemed to be unstoppable. Obviously, Seton Hall coach
Louis Orr made some adjustment at halftime, and they were effective; Ray
wouldn't score in the second half. As a team, though, the Wildcats were shooting
50% from the floor, compared to Seton Hall's 39, and had outrebounded the
Pirates, 17-13.

Villanova modestly padded the lead in the second half, during which the most
significant play was a key call that went in Villanova's favor. At the 14:02
mark, when Villanova was leading 44-39, J. R. Morris was called for a charge
on Foye while scoring a basket, which was waved off. The play cost the Pirates
two, or possibly three, points, saved Foye a foul and gave Villanova a
momentum boost, which they needed since Whitney had dunked on the Hall's previous

Ultimately, after the lead vacillated down the stretch, Andre Sweet scored to
put Seton Hall up 60-59, with 2:15 to play. Remarkably, nobody scored for
either team from that point, until Foye's game-winning basket with less than
four seconds to play. After Fraser swatted Barrett's shot, which would have put
the Hall up by three with 22.7 seconds to play, Villanova took possession and
called timeout. Before play resumed, Seton Hall also called timeout.

Villanova, coming out of that timeout, ran what presumably would be a
promising play, at least as coach Jay Wright had drawn it up - until Nardi tripped
over a Seton Hall player while going to accept the ball. Toney-El seized the
loose ball and raced for the basket, where he was fouled from behind and very
nearly scored anyway (which would have been disastrous). With 16.2 seconds to
play, he could have put the Hall up by three- but as noted above, he missed
them both. 'Nova called its last timeout to set up for the last shot, which Foye
ultimately converted.

The victory means Villanova is now 25-22 all-time in BE tournament play. It
marks a step in the right direction, that Villanova at least won a game in the
BE tournament, an improvement over last season. In the 2003 BE tournament, a
suspension-decimated team played stallball and managed to hang with
Georgetown in a throwback, 1980s style-game, before finally succumbing 46-41. They
lead the all-time series with Seton Hall 55-36, 25-17 as members of the Big
East, and 2-1 in BE tournament play.

On Thursday night, against #20 Providence (and the tournament's third seed)
the Wildcats will be seeking not just the NIT bid, but revenge. On Feb. 11,
the Friars came to the Pavilion and handed Villanova the most lopsided defeat in
the history of the building, 100-74; it was also the largest defeat in the
76-game, 68-year history of the series between the two schools. A victory would
also mark Villanova's deepest Big East tournament run since 1997, when the
Wildcats were the top seed and reached the final before losing to Boston
College. Since then, the team has never won more than one game in the conference
tournament, or reached the Friday night semifinals.

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