This game will go into the record books, as a quiet, double-digit victory for the #4 team in the nation, against a mediocre Providence team that will struggle to get an NIT bid. Villanova triumphed, improving its record to 22-2 overall, 11-1 Big East, #3 RPI, while Providence fell to 12-13, 4-9 Big East, with a RPI ranking of #104. With the schedule getting no easier for Providence, a .500 overall record -i.e., an absolute necessity for a NIT bid - looks less and less likely.
However, the 92-81 margin is highly deceptive. Providence was very much in the game, for the first 30 minutes of play. In fact, amid a slew of ties and lead changes, I was growing increasingly concerned that the ghosts of Providence losses past might reassert themselves. Under that scenario, the Friars would pull off a stunning upset, and possibly cost the Wildcats a #1 seed, come Selection Sunday.
Fortunately for us, Providence senior Sharaud Curry inadvertently removed himself from the floor, with his team trailing just 64-60, with 8:07 to play. Curry got tangled up attempting to cover Scottie Reynolds, and was whistled for his fourth personal foul, going out of bounds in the corner.
When Curry found out that the foul was on him, rather than Reynolds, he said something to the official and was immediately charged with a technical foul, which also constituted his fifth personal foul. The play meant that Villanova received four free throws, three of which Reynolds made, and sent Curry - Providence's best player, point guard, team leader, and 19 points - to the bench for the remaining eight minutes.
In football, where scoring is far less frequent, it is far more common for a single play to be the defining one of the game. An example would be an interception return such as that of New Orleans Saint Tracy Porter, off Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning in last Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV, which became the defining play of the game, by thwarting any hopes of a Colts victory late in the fourth quarter.
In contrast, it's far less common in basketball. But Curry's fourth and fifth fouls were the defining plays. Nor should the official be blamed; he committed the foul, and the technical, and he was the one who took himself off the floor.
The sequence absolutely devastated Providence. The Friars had actually led, 49-46, with 15:12 to play, and forced ties of 51-51 and 53-53 midway through the second half. Villanova had won the first 31:53, just 64-60. After Curry fouled out, the Wildcats embarked on a 15-5 run, that effectively ended the contest; the dagger was a triple from Reynolds with 4:49 to play, giving the Wildcats their largest lead up to that point, 14 points, at 79-65.
During the remaining 4:49, the Villanova lead never dipped below 11 points; in fact, the Wildcats led by as much as 16 points on three different occasions, including with 53 seconds to play. The score was Villanova 92, Providence 76, before the Friars scored the final five points to make it 92-81.
So why was Curry's departure so meaningful?
He's their best player, their point guard, and their leader. Providence, although they were very much in the game for the first 32 minutes, was already struggling to run their half-court offense, even with Curry. They were staying in the game due to points in transition and superb free throw shooting. Once Curry was gone, the half-court offense ground to a complete halt. It gave Villanova the opening it needed to pull away.
Providence deserves a lot of credit for their performance today. They gave us quite a scare, and it reminds us all of what a dangerous team they can be. The victory marked Villanova's eighth straight in the rivalry, but it wasn't that long ago that Providence was one of the teams that routinely gave Villanova fits.
Providence also was just ground down by Villanova's depth, and its own problems with foul trouble. Only one Wildcat (Corey Fisher) played more than 28 minutes (and even he only played 33). The fresh waves from the Villanova bench, compounded by the loss of their playmaker, finished off the Providence hopes for what would have been a national-headline-making upset on the road.
Looking at the Box Score
For Villanova, the star - as always - was Reynolds. Playing just 28 minutes due to foul trouble, he finished with 22 points (17 of them in the second half - another familiar pattern) on 6-14 shooting, 3-6 from beyond the arc, and 7-8 from the line.
Also coming up big was Fisher, whose offensive outbursts are increasingly common. Fisher had the best overall game of any Wildcat. He matched the 22 points from Reynolds, but he did so on far better shooting (10-15 from the floor), plus half a dozen assists, and four rebounds.
Underneath, Antonio Pena continues to shine. He posted yet another double-double, with 15 points on 5-9 shooting, plus a dozen rebounds, in only 28 minutes, with a pair of assists, a pair of steals, and a pair of blocked shots (and no turnovers).
Corey Stokes was the fourth Wildcat to reach double figures. The Bayonne Bomber didn't have his sights lined up with particular accuracy today (he was only 3-11 from the floor), but it was good enough for 10 points and eight rebounds, in just 25 minutes.
For Providence, Vincent Council had a team-high 21 points, with Curry adding 19 points, and Jamine Peterson just missing yet another double-double, with 19 points and nine rebounds.
Next Up for the Wildcats
The hated Huskies of Connecticut will be invading the Wachovia Center on Big Monday on ESPN, just two days from now...