Sunday, April 05, 2009

Villanova's 572-Mile Journey To the Final Four Ends, As Wildcats Fall to Ellington, North Carolina, 83-69, at Detroit's Ford Field

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Villanova's stunning NCAA tournament run ended on Saturday evening at cavernous Ford Field in Detroit, as the Wildcats fell to Wayne Ellington - of Episcopal Academy and Wynnewood, Pa. - and the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Final Four, 83-69.

It was the end to an amazing season, which culminated in Villanova advancing to the Final Four for just the fourth time in school history, and the first time since the miracle victory over Georgetown as a #8 seed in 1985, 24 years ago, on April Fool's Day...

It was the final game for seniors Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark, and Frank Tchuisi, who participated in more wins, than any other class in Villanova's storied 89-year basketball history...

Congratulations to head coach Jay Wright and his staff, the Wildcats, and all of those in the athletic department for making this year one to remember...

A more comprehensive recap will be coming... please check back...


Villanova was vanquished by a superior North Carolina team this evening. Obviously, the fact that North Carolina is the better team- on paper, in talent, and in won/lost record-

does not mean that the Wildcats couldn't have won tonight. They could have. (Any team - no matter what its seed - in the tournament field can beat any other team, on a neutral court.)

It just means that the Wildcats needed a near-flawless performance. And regrettably, that wasn't the case.

Before going through the numbers, one overall, subjective impression:

Particularly in the second half, as the minutes of the night slipped by-

The game had a very listless, uninspiring feel to it. Had I not been told that it was the Final Four, I would have likely concluded that it was a game in a holiday tournament, where there are few, if any fans, and teams from disparate conferences are playing each other in intersectional games.

Certainly, the fact that the game wasn't close had something to do with that effect on the viewer. But part of it was the decision to have a crowd of 70,000 +, for a basketball game. With the home favorite Spartans having gloriously ended UConn's season earlier, the green-and-white clad Michigan State fans began increasingly to go home, rather than cheer for Villanova's waning hopes of upsetting North Carolina and providing the Spartans with a slightly smoother path to another national title for Tom Izzo.

So for essentially the last eight minutes, the energy had been vacuumed out of Ford Field, and as play also became choppy, there was a desolate ambience about the game. With such a huge venue, if there aren't fans near the court to cheer, there is no noise (which couldn't have made CBS happy).

Nor was this impression solely due to the fact that it was a decisive North Carolina victory. I think that even had the score been reversed, the banal atmosphere, with the MSU and UConn fans having gone home, would have been similar. In summary, it just didn't have the exhilarating atmosphere that a Final Four contest should have...

We - with a great deal of justification - think of Final Fours as legendary games. Games in which storied programs trade highly contested buckets, with each side knowing that - even if the game isn't close - they are on the grandest stage that college basketball has to offer, and that the games will live on in the NCAA chronicles and the CBS highlight reels. It really didn't live up to that lofty standard.

(And of course, another contributing element, was the fact that the Pitt game was a very hard act to follow...)

So looking at numbers-

The Wildcats made just five of their 27 three-point attempts (18.5%), as well as shooting 26/79 from the floor (32.9%). These anemic numbers prompted CBS's Jim Nantz to remark - wittily - that
"they're certainly not shooting the way they did in the second half against Georgetown in 1985." (It's always worth noting - as Nantz immediately did, during the broadcast - that the Wildcats shot 78.6% from the floor against Georgetown overall, and 90% - nine out of ten - in the second half.)
This was the first Final Four game for Villanova, since that magical Monday, two dozen Aprils ago. But unfortunately, the hot shooting touch of Harold Jensen, Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain, Harold Pressley, Gary McLain, and Dwight Wilbur - did not maintain its mystical existence for a near-quarter century. (Although perhaps it might have lingered just long enough, to allow the shot from Scottie Reynolds to roll in, one week ago, against Pitt in the Elite Eight...)

Dante Cunningham had a superb game, ending his Villanova career neatly with a symmetrical dozen/dozen in points/rebounds. He shot 5/13 from the floor and committed three turnovers, but the Wildcats could have prevailed with Cunningham's dozen/dozen. The problem was that outside of Reggie Redding and Shane Clark, nobody had a good night from the floor (hence, the anemic numbers described earlier).

Redding - whom Nantz noted for the national audience, had played for St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia for former La Salle coach Speedy Morris - was named as Villanova's Chevrolet Player of the Game, finishing with 15 points on 5/9 shooting and four rebounds, including what was perhaps a particularly worthwhile feat, blocking a shot from Tyler Hansbrough (not easy for an off-guard to do).

In a statistical parallel to fellow senior Cunningham, Clark had half a dozen points, and half a dozen rebounds, while playing about half the time (18 minutes to Cunningham's 35). Rarely do the numbers work out so smoothly... and it was a fitting end to the magnificent run of these seniors, who played in four NCAA tournaments, two Elite Eights, three Sweet 16s, and a Final Four...

Reynolds led the Wildcats with 17 points, along with five assists and just one turnover, but it took him 18 shots to get six field goals, and he was just 3/11 from long-range distance.

Dwayne Anderson seemed to be everywhere, fighting for rebounds with abandon (he finished with a dozen) and also had three steals. But he was 2/12 from the floor, and missed all six of his three-point attempts.

Off the bench, Corey Fisher filled up the stat sheet, with 13 points and seven rebounds. But like the rest of the Wildcats, he struggled with accuracy - 5/19 shooting, 0-4 from beyond the arc. It often seemed that Fisher would just take the first shot he could, indiscriminately. Granted, Villanova trailed badly for almost the entire game, and instant offensive punch is Fisher's role. That having been said, it's very unusual to have a bench player have 19 field goal attempts to lead his team... Had some more of them rattled in, the Wildcats would have had a shot.

It didn't help that the other Corey's bombs didn't fall, either. Stokes played 20 minutes and was held scoreless, missing all three of his three-point attempts and collecting three rebounds.

Ironically, one factor that kept Villanova in the game, was something that they couldn't even affect - North Carolina's subpar performance at the foul line. The Tar Heels - even without any need for Villanova to foul at the end - went to the line 37 times, but made just 22 of them, a conversion rate of just 59.5%. (Both Cunningham and Anderson ultimately fouled out, providing a good opportunity to permit each of them to be given an ovation by the crowd.)

For Carolina's part, it has to be said that Ellington, more than any other Tar Heel, destroyed Villanova's hopes tonight. The wing player whom Jay Wright and his staff hoped at one time would become a Wildcat, ironically, ended the incredible run for the Main Liners.

Ellington finished with 20 points, on 7-14 shooting, including 5-7 from beyond the arc. Aside from the lethal perimeter shooting, it was the timing of the shots that was devastating.
Ellington's high-arcing triples kept crashing down on Villanova with a thud. They always seemed to come when the Wildcats had started to build some momentum, repeatedly thwarting hopes of a sustained rally.

Much more to come, in subsequent posts, on Sunday, and throughout the week... so please check back...

Go Wildcats!

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Anonymous said...

A great year. Senior class with most victories, ever. Season with most victories ever. Memorable run in the tournament, with spectacular wins over UCLA, Duke and Pitt. Trip to the Final Four. All seniors graduating. A season to hang up there in the rafters with '71 and '85.

UNC just had too much firepower. Mark Few of Gonzaga said at the beginning of the tourney that UNC playing at its best was better than anyone else in the tournament playing at their best.

Our guys have nothing to hang their heads about. Thanks for a great season!


Villanova Viewpoint Publisher said...

Hello, Seamus-

It really was an incredible season - one for the record books. Another Final Four. The spectacular ending against Pitt immortalized. It was another amazing finish to what is already another golden age for Villanova basketball.... 2009 unquestionably belongs with 1971 and 1985...

And as you pointed out, seniors graduating. Good stuff...

What a great season!

Go Wildcats!