MBB: Panthers put ‘Nova in Pitts

Kyle Scudilla

Although they tried hard, the Villanova Wildcats (14-7, 3-5 Big East) could not catch the Pittsburgh Panthers (20-3, 8-1) in the closing minutes of Monday night’s game at the Wachovia Center, which ended in a 65-59 Pitt victory.

“I want to give Pitt credit,” Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright said. “They played like a good Big East team, and they hit huge shots. I thought we played well; it was just timely mistakes on our part and timely shots on their part. I think it was the difference in the game.”

Wright’s assessment was accurate in describing a game in which, despite having as much as a nine-point lead in the second half, the Wildcats wasted favorable opportunities in the later stages of the game, while Pittsburgh climbed ahead with clutch shooting.

The ‘Cats led 28-23 after the first half that was largely a defensive struggle, marked by poor long-range shooting by the Panthers and a struggle for position in the paint by both teams. The Wildcats held their lead until the 12:24 mark of the second half, when Pitt’s Keith Benjamin nailed a 3-pointer to put the Panthers up 38-37. After falling down by as many as six points, Villanova fought back, highlighted by a runner in the lane by Scottie Reynolds where he banged bodies with a Pitt defender and fell to the floor. He made the shot, tying the game and sending the home crowd into a frenzy.

However, in what would become a recurring theme throughout the closing stages of the game, Pittsburgh senior guard Antonio Graves answered Reynolds’ heroics with a clutch shot of his own to quickly quiet the Wachovia Center.

Graves stepped up again just minutes later to stifle Villanova’s last gasp. Wildcat guard Mike Nardi hit a tough layup and then converted a bank shot with the shot clock near zero, following a steal by Curtis Sumpter, to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to one. Graves answered the call on the next possession with a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the shot clock to put Pitt up by four. After two Sumpter free throws, Graves’ backcourt mate Levance Fields buried a 3 of his own. Graves then added two free throws on the next Panther possession to extend the lead to seven points with 35 seconds left.

“It was great to make some adjustments,” Pitt Coach Jamie Dixons said. “We were playing stationary. We got better movement and more penetration in the second half.”

Graves finished with 13 points and seven assists for the Big East-leading Panthers. Fields finished with a game-high 20 points and 6-of-12 shooting from the field. Pitt center Aaron Gray had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Sumpter provided most of Villanova’s offensive production on a night where the ‘Cats shot just 38 percent. The Wildcat senior scored 21 points and grabbed nine boards off the bench. Shane Clark started in place of Sumpter, who is still working his way back from a series of leg injuries. Sumpter was ‘Nova’s leading scorer, despite shooting just 4-for-15. His major contributions came from the free-throw line, where he hit 12 shots and took 15 of the team’s 20 attempts. Nardi was the only other Villanova player in double figures, finishing with 10 points but shooting just 1-for-6 from beyond the arc. Reynolds chipped in with eight points but turned the ball over seven times for the Wildcats, who had 17 total turnovers.

“They never stop playing,” Nardi said about the No. 7-ranked Panthers. “They’re a very tough team, and they’re always doing those little things. They got us a couple of times, and then a couple of times we just made dumb mistakes.”

Forward Dante Cunningham added seven points and eight rebounds for Villanova, who dropped its second straight game after a loss at Notre Dame.

Missed 3-pointers by the Wildcats led to plenty of fast-break opportunities for Fields and the Panther offense. Villanova made just 5-of-19 attempts from downtown, leading to numerous long defensive rebounds for the Panthers. Despite Pitt’s own shooting woes early on and Villanova’s 35-30 rebounding edge, the Wildcats had just three fast-break points and struggled to get easy shot opportunities over the duration of the game.

The weekend’s contest against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (17-4, 5-3 Big East) elicited similar frustrations for the ‘Cats, who shot poorly but still held a late lead in a tough road environment. Notre Dame’s Ryan Ayers surmounted the lead Villanova kept for much of the game when he buried a 3-pointer to tie the game and then hit two free throws to put the Irish ahead, 62-60. Despite playing from behind in the final minute, the Wildcats had two chances to win it, but Reggie Redding and Sumpter missed open 3-point opportunities in the closing seconds to seal the victory for Notre Dame, who is currently 17-0 at the Joyce Center this season.

Reynolds, Villanova’s star freshman, led the way with 19 points and eight assists in a personal effort that helped earn him that week’s Big East Rookie of the Week award. Cunningham, Nardi and Sumpter chipped in with 11 points each, while Sumpter led the team with 10 rebounds. Still, the ‘Cats shooting woes and an improved defensive effort by the Fighting Irish caused Villanova to shoot just 33 percent from the field and fall well short of the 102 points it scored in the game played between these two teams earlier this season at the Pavilion.