Wildcats advance to Sweet 16



Tim Richer

What started as a weekend with a team content with its invitation to the dance quickly became one of the more surprising upsets of the NCAA tournament. According to most, Villanova had snuck into the field of 65 and was going to be easily disposed of by the Clemson Tigers.

Going into the Clemson contest, three upsets had already taken place on the floor of the St. Pete Times Forum. No. 12 seed Western Kentucky had defeated No. 5 Drake, No. 13 San Diego had defeated No. 4 Connecticut and just minutes before ‘Nova’s tipoff, No. 13 Siena had handled No. 4 Vanderbilt. Before last Friday, no site had hosted more than two upsets in the same day.

“We’d be lying if you don’t think, how many times is that going to happen, four at one site?” Head Coach Jay Wright said. “Once you start the game you forget all about that stuff.”

The outlook did not look bright for the Wildcats as they fell behind quickly; the deficit was as much as 18 in the first half. Thanks to a late surge, Villanova entered intermission only trailing by 12, 39-27. Poor shooting and turnovers plagued the ‘Cats throughout the first half.

‘Nova opened the second half with a 5-0 start, thanks to a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Scottie Reynolds and a layup from junior forward Shane Clark. Villanova was running on all cylinders, shooting 50 percent from the field.

Clemson surrendered its first lead of the game when Reynolds banked a 3 after he was fouled by guard Cliff Hammonds. Despite missing the foul shot for the four-point play, the ‘Cats took a 50-49 lead and held on the rest of the way to secure a 75-69 victory and a Sunday afternoon date with the Siena Saints.

The Saints, from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, were vying to be the first team from the MAAC to make the Sweet 16. After their thrashing of Vanderbilt two days before, ‘Nova had to be concerned with the strong backcourt play of the Saints. The combination of guards Tay Fisher, Kenny Hasbrouck and Ronald Moore had scored 60 points in the 83-62 victory over the Commodores.

“I think we played a football game Friday night,” Wright said Sunday, referring to the Clemson matchup. “Then today was a track meet. These guys were really good and quick.”

The ‘Cats handled the Saints Sunday afternoon. Villanova maintained a double-digit lead during most of the contest, growing to as many as 14 in the first half and 16 in the second, and never trailed.

One of the keys for Villanova was that it was able to contain the trio, allowing a total of just 25 points – 17 of which went to Hasbrouck. Ironically enough, the dominant scorer for Siena was forward Alex Franklin, who had 18 points. Franklin was able to take advantage of the Wildcats’ lack of height in the first half due to Dante Cunningham’s foul trouble.

Reynolds led the way for the Wildcats, tallying 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists, all team- highs. Freshman swingman Corey Stokes had one of his stronger games of the season, scoring 20 points, a career-high.

“Right now, the last two or three weeks, we’ve been playing our best basketball, and we stuck together,” Reynolds said. “We had that mindset where if we’re going to go down, you know, it’s going to be a dogfight.”

The Wildcats never appeared to give ground. Even though Villanova led by double-digits most of the game, a layup from Franklin cut the Wildcat lead to nine with just over six minutes to play. It appeared as if Siena had momentum after Reynolds followed Franklin’s basket with a missed jumper; however, a steal by junior forward Dwayne Anderson led to a wide-open layup by Reynolds to put the Wildcats back up by 11. Villanova was able to maintain a double-digit margin the rest of the way.

‘Nova closed out the game with a 84-72 victory, thanks in large part to 53.6 percent shooting from the field, as opposed to just 35.7 percent from the Saints.

With the victory, Villanova advanced to the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years. The Wildcats’ last Sweet 16 game was a tightly contested matchup in Minneapolis, Minn., with Boston College in 2006. The ‘Cats won that game in overtime on a last-second layup from forward Will Sheridan.

Next up for the Wildcats will be the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks tomorrow in Detroit, Mich. The star-studed Jayhawks, post-season champions of the Big XII Conference, enter the game on a 10-game winning streak.