To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-
#3 Villanova avoided a stunning upset by a gallant #14 American squad on Thursday, overcoming a 14-point second-half deficit to cruise down the stretch for an 80-67 victory, that was far more harrowing for a Villanova fan, than the score would indicate. Dwayne Anderson scored a career-high 25 points, matched by Dante Cunningham's 25, to power the Wildcats into the second round.
Keep checking back, as I will update this article throughout the evening....
NCAA Tournament - First Round - The Wachovia Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
#3 Villanova 80, #14 American 67
When the future generations of Villanova Wildcats fans look at this score, "back in '09", it will likely be viewed as an afterthought. A 13-point victory over a Patriot League team in the first round - in a #3/#14 game - at home. Utterly inconsequential. They would likely be far more interested in the subsequent games, such as the first NCAA tournament game against UCLA since the 1971 national title game, or any additional rounds the Wildcats might have reached.
However I would be hard pressed to name another 13-point victory, in which it appeared - deep into the second half, no less - that the game might be alarmingly out of reach. The Wildcats trailed by 14 points, one minute into the second half. While that was the literal peak of the American lead, the Eagles were not simply leading, but dominating play through the "third quarter", so to speak, in NBA terms.
American still led Villanova, 55-47, at the 11:21 mark. Since play had resumed, the American lead had never dipped below six. The Eagles had all of the momentum. Their lead, which was 10 at halftime, had fluctuated from a high of 14, to a low of six, over the first nine minutes of the second half.
It is very difficult to describe the level of despair, that was throbbing through the Villanova community, during the first three-quarters of this innocuous-in-the-record-books 13-point victory. I was already sketching out the unpleasant parallels between the 1995 triple-overtime disaster to Old Dominion in the first round, and wondering what the consequences would be for the program with a loss.
And for much of the second half, the Wildcats were in serious, serious trouble, of being handed a first-round exit in Philadelphia. Of course, I had hopes that Villanova would rally and eke out a victory, but I also considered this very realistic scenario: AU might suddenly turn on the jets and blow the Wildcats all the way back to the Main Line, dishing them a double-digit defeat on their quasi-home floor in one of the most stunning upsets in modern NCAA tournament history.
That having been said, the scoreboard showed that the Wildcats did in fact defeat the Eagles tonight - and that they did so by a solid 13-point margin. The Wildcats atoned for their first 29 minutes of dreadful play, by suddenly reviving in the last 11 minutes and flattening AU.
American won the first 29 minutes, 55-47. The Wildcats won the last 11 minutes, 33-12.
In fact, they won the final 11 minutes so decisively, that there was even garbage time to be had. (And Jay Wright really should have put Jason Colenda and Frank Tchuisi into the game at garbage time. American coach Jeff Jones refused to surrender and kept fouling, and there were ample stoppages in which they could have gotten on to the floor. Antonio Pena, a member of the regular rotation, didn't even get into the game at all.)
So what fueled this victory?
The Eagles had shredded Villanova's defense in the first half, ripping off 41 points to Villanova's 34. American's dominance reached its apex when Brian Gilmore hit a finger-roll layup with 11:21 to play, pushing its lead back to 55-47, after the teams had emerged from the under-12 CBS timeout. So at that point, AU was also winning the second half, 14-13. They were having no trouble whatsoever scoring. The Eagles were scoring at will.
But over the ensuing six-and-a-half minutes, Villanova scored 15 unanswered points, transforming the game from a staggering upset to a routine #3/#14 victory. I remembered thinking that American had seemed stuck on 55 for a long time. The Wildcats clamped down on them and shut them out until the 4:30 mark, when Garrison Carr's jump shot cut 'Nova's lead to 62-57. In other words, the Wildcats held the Eagles without a point for nearly seven minutes. Now, it's not unheard of for a team to have long droughts; conversely, for a team that plays defense like Villanova, it's not unheard of to impose those droughts on opponents.
However, what was unusual, was the fact that American went from scoring at will, to not scoring at all, for a long time. So long, in fact, that the Eagles not only fell off cruise control, they were taken out of the game completely. Carr's shot got the Eagles within five of the Wildcats, but they never drew any closer.
Carr drove for a layup, to pull the Eagles once more within five, at 66-61 - with 3:10 to play. But the Eagles didn't score any more points until the final minute. After that layup, Villanova had crushed any hope of a rally, by rattling off an 8-0 run, putting the game far out of reach. The Wildcats led 74-61 with 58 seconds left, before the Eagles managed to score again (a layup by Jordan Nichols - the Maryland high school opponent of Reynolds, Anderson, and Cunningham - with 49 seconds to go). This is why I am perplexed as to why the bench players couldn't get into a game that the Wildcats led by 11 points in the final minute.
Keep checking back for more updates... There will be (at minimum) a second post on the American game, later on Friday, and eventually, some material on the second-round game with UCLA.