Yesterday it was announced that senior forward Dante Cunningham received honorable mention for the AP’s All-American team. It is yet another accolade for a player that really developed his game in his senior season.
As an interesting note, Villanova has faced three players (DeJuan Blair, Gerald Henderson and Sam Young) already in the NCAA tournament that were on the first three teams. The Wildcats will face two more (Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson) when they take on UNC on Saturday.
The Wildcats will be the second game of national semifinals on Saturday. Expect the Michigan State-UConn game to go a little long and push this back to a 9 PM start.
In what may go down as the greatest season in Big East history, Villanova and Pittsburgh faced off in quite possibly the best game ever played between two teams in the conference. In a game that saw 10 ties and 15 lead changes, Villanova finally prevailed on a Scottie Reynolds layup with .5 seconds remaining in the gam
The final basket gave Villanova fans a chance to say something for the first time in 24 years: The Wildcats are in the Final Four. However, it did not come without as much drama and tension as any game could possible have.
After two free throws by senior guard Levance Fields with 2:01 remaining, Pittsburgh grabbed a 68-67 lead. Villanova took back the lead on its next possession when senior forward Dwayne Anderson hit a 3-point shot.
After a Pittsburgh turnover by sophomore forward DeJuan Blair, the Panthers fouled sophomore guard Corey Fisher with 46 seconds remaining. Fisher calmly sunk both free throws to extend the Villanova lead to four.
The Panthers quickly responded with a 3-point shot by senior forward Sam Young to narrow the score to one but two more free throws by Fisher made the score 75-72.
Following a missed 3-point shot by Fields, sophomore guard Reggie Redding hit one of two free throws to give Villanova the four-point lead. The one miss was the only one of the game for the Wildcats.
With 20 seconds left, it would seemingly take a miracle for the Panthers to overcome the deficit.
Blair connected on an easy layup on Pittsburgh’s next possession, and what came next was exactly the miracle Pittsburgh needed. On the ensuing inbounds pass, Redding threw it the length of the court, and senior forward Dante Cunningham was unable to corral the ball before Pittsburgh recovered the loose ball. Fields then was fouled and sunk two more free throws to tie the game.
What came next was a play that will live on in both Villanova and NCAA tournament history.
Given a second chance, Redding successfully inbounded the ball to Cunningham at the free throw line. Cunningham passed it to Reynolds who weaved in between defenders and into the lane. Despite a lot of contact, Reynolds managed to get a shot off over the Pittsburgh defender. The ball left his hand and fell through the net with .5 seconds left.
“It’s something that we do everyday in practice,” Reynolds said. “Either I was going to get fouled or I was going to hit the shot or we are going to overtime. I’m just thankful it went in.”
Pittsburgh relied on Fields to take a desperation heave as time expired, but the shot was off the mark. Villanova had escaped and was now on its way to Detroit.
“I’m so proud for our guys and Villanova,” said Head Coach Jay Wright. “This is a great tradition we are a part of.”
Following the game Anderson, Cunningham and Reynolds were all named to All-Tournament Team for the East Region. Reynolds was also named the most outstanding player of the region. He finished the game against Pittsburgh with 15 points after scoring 16 against Duke in the previous round.
Anderson led all Villanova scorers against Pittsburgh with 17 points. Senior forward Shane Clark and Cunningham were also both in double-figures in scoring with 11 points and 14 points, respectively.
Aside from reaching its fourth Final Four in school history, Villanova achieved several other milestones in the contest. The win was the 300th for Wright and 30th of the season, the latter of which has never been reached before at Villanova.
The Wildcats will play their next game on Saturday in Detroit. The team will play the winner of tomorrow’s North Carolina-Oklahoma game.
They may be the winningest class in the history of Villanova, but there is one loss that still haunts the current group of seniors on the Wildcats. During their freshman year, Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark, Dante Cunningham and Frank Tchuisi all were part of the Villanova team that reached the Elite Eight as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. However, despite the expectations and the talent on the team, the Wildcats lost to Florida and fell just one win shy of the Final Four.
“Obviously, it hurt we lost,” Cunningham said. “We played so hard and gave everything we had at them.”
To get that close and to come up short is tough for any team, but with the year Villanova had that season, it was especially devastating. From the first game, dreams of its first Final Four since 1985 were discussed. The team reached the No. 1 overall ranking during the season and came into the Big Dance as one of the favorites to win it all.
The team itself was comprised of one of the most loved groups of Villanova players ever to don the uniform. Led by senior guards Randy Foye and Allan Ray, the Wildcats gave themselves their first legitimate shot to win a title since Head Coach Jay Wright joined the team.
“The oppurtunity we had our freshman year was tremendous,” Cunningham said. “It was all about our seniors that year – Randy Foye and Allan Ray. They did a great job.”
However, even despite the leadership of Foye and Ray, a trip to the Final Four was not meant to be. All of the team’s success would not be forgotten, but still it seemed like a season that ended too early.
“You are crushed, because when you get that far everything is clicking. You are on such a high,” Wright said. “Then it ends. You’re crushed.”
Although this year’s senior class only played a combined total of 17 minutes in the game against Florida, the way the team went down is still fresh in their minds.
“We played our hearts out freshman year and came up short,” Anderson said. “If we play our hearts out this year that’s fine with us. But we want the best advantage to get over that edge.”
The Wildcats will have a chance to get over that edge tonight against Pittsburgh. A win would be the team’s first Final Four in 24 years. It also would be mean finishing what Foye and Ray started in 2006.
“Now it’s on us,” Cunningham said. “We are definitely going to do our best to take it to the next level.”
Getting that win to get to next level may be enough to finally erase the disappointing way that Villanova ended its season three seasons ago.
When Villanova knocked off Pittsburgh on Jan. 28, Head Coach Jay Wright said that he hoped he would never have to see the Panthers again. Although the Wildcats avoided them in the Big East tournament, when the NCAA tournament bracket came out on Selection Sunday, the two teams found themselves in the same region, which to some experts meant that a rematch was inevitable. Now that the rematch is here, let’s take a look at Pittsburgh, a team that has changed a lot since the first time these two teams met.
Strengths: For most of the season, Pittsburgh was considered the best team in the Big East, and by some the best team in the country. The reason for that was its experience and physical play. Led by senior guard Levance Fields and senior forward Sam Young, the Panthers have been through every battle possible in their four years with the team. However, what puts the team over the edge is the play of sophomore forwards DeJuan Blair. He is the most physical player in the country, and gives the Pittsburgh a decisive rebounding advantage coming into every game. Together Young, Fields and Blair, make up possibly the best offensive threesome in the nation.
Weaknesses: In its last four games, Pittsburgh’s supporting players have been the reason the team has looked so vulnerable. In its Big East tournament game and three NCAA tournament games, only one player (freshman guard Ashton Gibbs) has had 10 points in a game besides Young, Fields and Blair. The lack of production from the team’s role players is something that needs to be corrected if Pittsburgh is going to advance to the Final Four.
The Panthers also lack a consistent shooter from beyond the 3-point arc and that weakness is showing up in March. In its last four games, Pittsburgh is shooting 31.4 percent from 3-point range, which is below its season average of 35.4 percent.
Who to Watch: Talk to anyone across the country, and the first player they name on Pittsburgh is Blair. However, ask anyone on Villanova, and the player they are most concerned with is Fields. As he showed against Xavier, Fields has a knack for making the big play late, even when he is struggling for the majority of the game. What makes Fields most dangerous is his ability to beat teams without scoring. He has an uncanny ability to make the right play, as shown by his Big East best 3.7/1 assist to turnover ratio. By stopping the motor of the Panther’s offense, Villanova will greatly improve its chances to win the game.
What to expect: So far this tournament, Villanova is playing like the No. 1-seed rather than Pittsburgh. Villanova has been able to demolish its opponents while Pittsburgh has squeaked by with narrow victories against inferior opponents. Nevertheless, this is not the type of game Villanova will be able to run away with like its last two. This will be a classic, physical Big East battle that will most likely come down to the final minute. In such a physical game, fouls will be prevalent, so look for the team who can avoid fouls to its best players as the one that advances to Detroit.
The No. 3-seeded Villanova Wildcats defeated the No. 2-seeded Duke Blue Devils 77-54 Thursday night in the East Regional semifinal in Boston in front of what seemed a Villanova friendly crowd.
Junior guard Scottie Reynolds led all players in scoring with 16 points, and the Wildcats’ defense stepped up to hold the Blue Devils to 26.7 percent from the field and 18.5 percent from beyond the 3-point line. The 23-point drubbing was Duke’s worst tournament loss since their 30-point defeat to UNLV in 1990.
Similar to the opening of their game against UCLA, the Wildcats came out physical, blocking Duke’s first three-point attempt. After quickly going down five, Villanova stormed back to score 11 unanswered points. The Wildcats never relinquished the lead after Reynolds put the team up two with a three-pointer and 17:21 remaining in the first half.
Despite poor shooting from deep, Villanova went into the locker room up three, the score sitting at 26-23. Duke’s 3-point shooting, usually the team’s strong point, was held in check as the Blue Devils shot only 2-11 from deep in the first half. The only reason the game was close was due to Duke matching Villanova’s physicality and defensive pressure.
Duke forward Kyle Singler opened the second half with an easy layup, pulling the Blue Devils to within one, 26-25. But the Wildcats came back with a vengeance, exploding on a 16-4 run and bringing the score to 42-29.
Villanova continued to play physical while Duke continued to search for answers. The struggles from three-point land that crippled the Blue Devils in the first half carried over in the second. Duke shot only 9-35 from the field and 3-16 from beyond the arc. Sophomore guard Corey Stokes hit a three-point jumper with just over two minutes remaining to secure Villanova’s spot in the Elite 8.
Those left in the TD Banknorth Garden started chants of “We want Pitt! We want Pitt!”
Many expected a dogfight between these two very similar squads, but Villanova was simply too deep and too balanced for the Blue Devils. The Wildcats managed to contain Duke’s most explosive players, forwards Jon Scheyer and Gerald Henderson. The two combined for a miserable 4-32 from the field.
In addition to Reynolds, senior forward Dante Cunningham and junior guard Reggie Redding managed double figures in points. Redding finished with 11 points and nine rebounds, while Cunningham notched yet another double-double, scoring 14 points and bringing in 11 boards.
Besides propelling Villanova into the next round to take on Big East rival Pittsburgh for a trip to the Final Four, the victory broke Villanova’s school record for wins in a single season. The Duke win was Villanova’s 29th of the year and marked the Wildcat’s first victory over Duke since December 20, 1958. The Blue Devils had won the previous five meetings.
Villanova will try to advance to its first Final Four since winning the National Championship in 1985 against Pittsburgh on Saturday at 7 p.m.
I’m off to Boston, but here are the articles dealing with the game form this week’s issue: