Thursday, November 19, 2009

Armwood's Astonishing Triple Helps #5 Wildcats Escape George Mason, 69-68, in Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic Quarterfinal

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

With 17 seconds to play today, and 'Nova down by two, it all seemed so familiar - a big, clutch, last-minute shot from a Villanova Wildcat with the number "34" on his back.  Curtis Sumpter would come to mind - and at first glance, many of even the most faithful of Villanova partisans would have seen that highlight, and assumed that it was an old game from several years back.

But it wasn't Sumpter - one of the premier players of the Jay Wright era on the Main Line, a member of Wright's first vaunted recruiting class of Sumpter, Randy Foye, Jason Fraser, and Allen Ray.  It was Isaiah Armwood.

Villanova's secret weapon today was Armwood, a freshman at the far end of the bench, who played only 13 minutes, in a 38-point victory over Penn on Monday night - the fewest minutes of any scholarship player on the squad.  A freshman player who is allotted just 13 minutes, in a game that his team leads 55-25 at halftime - it would largely be safe to say, that player cannot expect to play much that season.  The vast majority of Villanova fans would likely not yet recognize his name.

But Armwood has taken a major step, toward ending his relative anonymity on the Main Line.

Although Jay Wright was obviously far more familiar with Armwood's talents - having recruited him - the heroics likely came as a surprise to Wright, too.   To put it mildly, Wright was probably not anticipating that the ball would be in the hands of Armwood, trailing by two points with 17 seconds to play- a player who had yet to score a single point, in intercollegiate competition.  But yet, Armwood was the guy on whom Villanova's fate rested. 

And perhaps channeling the spirit of Sumpter, the Villanova standout who last wore "34", Armwood buried a three-pointer to stun the plucky, gritty, gold-and-green-clad George Mason Patriots.

By doing so, the fifth-ranked Wildcats improved to 3-0 overall, and will face Dayton tomorrow in the semifinals of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic.

Any fan with a heart, had to feel for the players, coaching staff, and loyal GMU fans who had made the trip down to sunny San Juan.  The Patriots had led for almost the entire game, led by nine at halftime, led by five points with less than two minutes to play.  They had outplayed Villanova, gotten to more loose balls, committed fewer foolish fouls.  The Patriots really, really, really deserved to win today.

The fact that they had come so close, to toppling the #5 team in the nation, was heartbreaking, and I say that as a Villanova fan.  The basketball gods were at their cruelest today, teasing GMU with another major victory.  It wouldn't have been as memorable as upsetting Connecticut in the Elite Eight back in 2006, but it certainly would have entered GMU lore.

Of course, today's game will in fact enter George Mason lore - but as one of the gallant mid-major's most heartbreaking defeats.  Ever.  With two minutes to play, the Patriots had the lead.  But that doesn't tell the whole story.

Wright was out of post players.   Mouphtaou Yarou had unexpectedly gotten sick, and had been sent back to Philadelphia to recuperate.  Antonio Pena, Taylor King, and Maurice Sutton had all fouled out, leaving Wright with nothing but guards and wing players to play the rest of the game.  (Had overtime ensued, Villanova would have been in serious trouble.)

And if that weren't enough, Corey Stokes had also fouled out, after having a terrible day shooting.

It was nothing short of a miracle, that Villanova won this game.  The blessings of the basketball gods are fickle, and I suspect that someday down the line, Villanova will outhustle and outplay and outsmart a superior opponent, be teased with the prospect of victory...

and still lose, nonetheless, in soul-crushing fashion.  But that's for another day.


Looking at the Box Score

In addition to the generosity of the basketball gods, Wright has to be given credit for winning this game with a plethora of inexperienced players, playing out of position.

Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher, two of the players who are expected to score, both turned in strong performances.  Reynolds played all but one minute, which was vital, given how shorthanded the Wildcats were today.  He finished with 18 points on 6-14 shooting, including 4-4 from the line.  His stats were diminished, however, by a dreadful running of the point - he finished with two assists while committing eight turnovers.

This was a highly unusual game - as strange a game as I've ever seen- in terms of the flow of play, the outcome, the constant turnovers, and the asymmetrical box score.  Villanova's second-leading scorer played 37 minutes and somehow missed all but one, of a dozen field goal attempts.  If that's your second-leading scorer's shooting accuracy, it's usually a loss.   But no matter how much Fisher struggled from the floor, he more than made up for it, from the line.

Fisher went 14-18 from the line, on a day that he went 1-12 from the floor.  (I've never seen a discrepancy like that.)   In addition to his 17 points, Fisher also contributed in other areas, grabbing five offensive rebounds (and six total), adding three assists and committing a single turnover.

Pressed into service by the foul trouble, freshman Maalik Wayns demonstrated the speed and quickness that made him such a highly touted newcomer.  Wayns, coming off the bench, logged 26 minutes, scored nine points, collected half a dozen rebounds, dealt four assists against one turnover.

Dominic Cheek helped hold down the fort, as he received 11 minutes, down from the 18 he played against Penn.  He had two rebounds and a steal, but did not score.

As noted, Armwood was an unlikely hero, as he played only four minutes, even with a desperately short bench.  He took only a single shot - but it was the one on which the outcome pivoted.

Now, turning to the four Wildcats who fouled out:

The best performance today from this group, was Pena.  He notched a double-double, with 10 points and a dozen rebounds, in only 27 minutes.  He was 4-5 from the floor, which was great, and 2-5 from the line, which could be improved.

By far, the biggest disappointment, in terms of offense, was Corey Stokes.  Stokes's performance, as noted by the analysts on the broadcast - was one that undoubtedly made him glad that the Wildcats get to play again tomorrow.  Stokes was hampered by foul trouble for the entire contest, limiting him to 22 minutes.

And even when Stokes was on the floor, he was ineffective.  He missed all three field goal attempts, finishing with a single point from the foul line, had no steals, no assists, and two turnovers.  The one bright spot were the five rebounds from a guard, but Villanova needed more from him today.  He fouled out with to play.

Taylor King's foul trouble kept him from having a major impact, as two of his fouls were very foolish.  His third, coming at the end of the first half, was particularly egregious.  He had immediately been sent in for the final minute with two fouls, undoubtedly having been told not to risk a third foul - which he promptly did, trying to take a charge in the lane.  He also committed his fifth foul, while aggressively contesting a shot in the lane.  The defense would have been commendable under different circumstances, but with so many frontcourt players in foul trouble, it was a bad move.

King finished with 17 minutes, eight points, four offensive rebounds, and some assorted tip-ins and tip-backs that didn't show up in the box score.  Had the Wildcats lost, the fact that King was only on the floor for 17 minutes would have been a major factor.

The redshirt freshman Maurice Sutton was pressed into service by the foul trouble, and he gritted it out.  His main role was to rebound, defend, and absorb five fouls.  Sutton finished with three points, four boards (three on the offensive end), a blocked shot in 17 minutes.

For George Mason, Ryan Pearson led the Patriots with 14 points and eight rebounds.  Two other Patriots had 13 points - guards Cam Long and Andre Cornelius.

The basketball gods were generous to Villanova in other ways.  Long, undoubtedly George Mason's best player, was plagued by leg cramps and did not play much in the second half - his 13 points came in just 22 minutes.  Cornelius, ordinarily the starting point guard, did not start due to, as the ESPNU broadcast reported, the fact that he "wore inappropriate attire" to the pre-Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic banquet yesterday.  As a result, he played only 26 minutes.  With two of the best Patriots limited, by the vagaries of health and banquet attire, Villanova still had to eke out a one-point victory, and play from behind for nearly the entire game.

Villanova shot only 19-53 (35.8%) from the floor, and only 23-39 (59.0%) from the line.  As analyst Fran Fraschilla noted, with intimidating shot blockers absent from the game, both teams were able to penetrate the lane easily and draw fouls, accounting for the large number of free throws.  George Mason was also mired in foul trouble; only one Patriot fouled out, but four others finished the game with four fouls.  On the other end, the Patriots went 27-37 from the line (73.0%). 

The Game Action

Villanova fell behind early, making only one of their first seven shots, and spent the entire first half chasing George Mason.  The Patriots took an early 8-2 lead, and didn't relinquish it for the rest of the half.  Pearson hit a jumper at the 10:02 mark to put George Mason up 21-8, their largest lead of the half.

The Wildcats counterattacked, embarking on a 15-5 run, which culminated with a Pena layup on a feed from Fisher, and causing Jim Larranaga to call timeout with 5:42 to play in the half.  The lead was down to 26-21.  But Mason regrouped, and launched a run of its own.  The most spectacular play was a dunk from Kevin Foster in transition, boosting the lead back to 37-27 with 24 seconds remaining.  A Fisher free throw trimmed it to 37-28 at halftime, but it was clear that this was not going to be like the Penn game.  Villanova was going to have to truly battle.

Looking at the halftime box, the fact that Villanova had two assists against a dozen turnovers summed up the half, as well as the 7-23 (30.4%) from the floor.

After play resumed, Villanova went on the attack, and it appeared that the superior talent was showing through.  Trailing by nine at halftime, the Wildcats tied the game for the first time since 0-0, when a three-pointer by Wayns deadlocked the game at 44 with 13:37 to go.

The teams continued to trade baskets, but it took a while for the Wildcats to move ahead.  Reynolds finally gave Villanova its first lead of the game with 7:08 to play, hitting a jumper to make it 56-54, Villanova, and Larranaga opted for another timeout at the 6:57 mark.

However, the war of attrition had begun to damage Villanova, as Wildcats were now fouling out.  Stokes fouled out at the 4:51 mark, and GMU's free throws boosted them to a 58-56 lead.  Less than a minute later, King fouled out, with GMU up 60-59.

The most devastating play - and the one which appeared to doom Villanova's hopes - was when Pena fouled out with 1:42 to play.  The resulting free throws gave GMU a 64-59 lead, and with three key Wildcats out of the game, there didn't seem to be much reason for optimism.

A Fisher free throw drew 'Nova to within 64-60.  A Sutton layup pulled the Wildcats to 62-60 with 1:21 left.  Still breathing.  Sutton fouled out with 55 seconds to play, leaving Wright with no post players.  George Mason increased its lead to 67-63 with 47 seconds left.

Wayns came up with a huge triple, slashing the lead to 67-66 with 41 seconds to go and providing some hope.  Armwood fouled Sherrod Wright, who made one of two free throws, and Mason was clinging to a 68-66 lead.  Cheek rebounded the miss, and Armwood worked his magic.

Of course, George Mason had the final shot, trailing by one with 17 seconds to play, but were never even able to launch a shot.  Heartbreak city.

Sights and Sounds

The George Mason pep band made the trip (Villanova's did not) and made the atmosphere as lively and fun, as an empty venue could be.  The bandleader was highly conspicuous, and the band played an eclectic mix of songs, such as Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (obviously, not a single member of the band was even alive when that song was out), and "Sell Out" by Reel Big Fish (a ska song which is well-suited for pep bands, with all of the brass).

The George Mason Patriot also appeared (the Wildcat wasn't there, or at least was not shown on camera).  The Patriot - while dressed in 18th-century garb to honor the historical George Mason, a Founding Father -  has his entire face colored one half green and one gold, and it would be a better mascot without the face paint.

Many of their fans, unsurprisingly, wore shirts commemorating its 2006 Final Four appearance.  They were having a great time until the last 17 seconds - and hopefully, Mason will win at least one game in San Juan, for those who made the trip from Northern Virginia.

Final ironic note:

Ironic because Sumpter was mentioned earlier in the post, Reynolds surpassed both Sumpter, and the legendary Paul Arizin, Villanova's Hall of Famer, on the school's all-time scoring list today.  Reynolds has now recorded 1,660 points in his career, and is currently ranked 12th.  The next stop is Larry Hennessey, who played from 1950-53, with 1,737 points. 

The Wildcats will now take on Dayton at 3 PM tomorrow, in the semifinals, also on ESPNU.  The Flyers outlasted Georgia Tech, 63-59, in the early game.   I'll have a full recap after the game.

Go Wildcats!


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