Villanova trailed American by 14 points early in the second half at the Wachovia Center last night, and it was clear that the fans in the building were pulling for the underdogs. Seniors Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson, and Shane Clark were less than 20 minutes away from playing their final game at Villanova, on their “home court” at the Wachovia Center no less.
A friend of mine (a UConn fan) texted me to remind me of Villanova’s loss to 14 seed Old Dominion in triple overtime in the 1990s. I turned to my father, with whom I was watching the game, and remarked that Villanova, on this same court, had trailed LSU by 26 in the second half of a game last season and had come back to win.
That victory was sparked by a stellar performance from Malcolm Grant (who transferred to Miami after last season), but I was convinced that one of Nova’s seniors would step up.
I was wrong. Two Wildcat seniors stepped up.
Dwayne Anderson, who several years ago was told by coach Jay Wright that he would never play at Villanova if he didn’t learn to play Villanova basketball, had a career night. He scored a career-high 25 points on a ridiculous 9-of-10 from the field (including 4-of-5 from three-point range). He also led Villanova in rebounds with eight.
Dante Cunningham also poured in 25 points on 9-of-16 field goals and was a perfect 7-of-7 from the charity stripe. The only other Wildcat to score in double figures was Big East sixth man of the year Corey Fisher, who shot 9-of-10 from the free throw line and scored one field goal.
It was really at the free throw line that Villanova won this game. American had dictated the style of play in the first half as Villanova settled for jump shots. In the second half, down 14, the Wildcats finally began playing Villanova basketball: gritty play along with crashing the boards and driving to the bucket. The result was that Villanova wound up shooting 29 free throws, making 26 for just under 90 percent.
On the other side, American went to the line just five times (making three). American committed 24 fouls; Villanova committed just 12. That is how the Cats took a 14-point deficit and turned it into a 13-point victory, ending the ball for Cinderella.
Next up for Villanova come the Bruins of UCLA, coached by Ben Howland, who brings a Big East mentality to the Pac-10. The Bruins just barely squeaked by 11th seed VCU (who lost by one when they missed a last second shot).
Villanova should be able to handle the Bruins, who had to travel across the Nation to play in Philadelphia, but in order to do that Nova will have to do a few things that did not happen last night.
1. Villanova has to watch their turnovers. They made some sloppy passes in the first half of their opening game, and that could lead to a lot of fast break opportunities for UCLA. If they protect the basketball and can force UCLA to play more half-court offense, it will be to Villanova’s advantage.
2. Let’s face it, Anderson isn’t going to shoot 90 percent every night. Someone is going to have to pick up the slack. Scottie Reynolds was absent from Nova’s offense for the second straight game, scoring just eight points (he averages over 15). Reggie Redding, Shane Clark, and Corey Stokes combined for just 11 more.
Scottie Reynolds especially has to knock down his open shots. He is too good a player to shoot just 2-of-7 from the field (including 0-of-3 from three-point range).
3. Villanova must feed the post and drive to the basket early. This will open up more good looks for Reynolds, Stokes, and Anderson from the outside. If Fisher can drive to the basket, or they can feed Cunningham in the post (both of which will cause the defense to collapse), they should get some good looks from three-point range or at the very least get fouled and go to the line.
I’m picking Villanova to beat UCLA and advance to the round of 16, where they will face Duke or Texas. While I’m making predictions, the Wildcats can handle either Texas or Duke as well as long as they play Villanova basketball and don't allow their opponent to dictate the style of play.