Graves, Fields put ‘Nova in the Pitts



Kyle Scudilla

As hard as they tried, the 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 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 a highly accurate one to describe a game where, despite having as much as a nine-point lead in the second half, the Wildcats wasted favorable opportunities in the latter stages of the game, and fell victim to clutch shooting by the opposition, allowing Pittsburgh to climb ahead for good.

The ‘Cats led 28-23 after a 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 three-pointer to put the Panthers up 38-37. After trailing by as much 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, but managed to make the shot, tying the game and sending the home crowd into frenzy.

However, in what would become a recurring theme throughout the closing stages of the game, Pittsburgh 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. Mike Nardi hit a tough lay-up and then converted a bank shot with the shot clock near zero to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to one. Graves answered the call on the next possession with a three-pointer in the closing seconds of the shot clock to put Pitt up four. After two Curtis Sumpter free throws, Graves’ backcourt mate Levance Fields buried a three 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.

Graves, the senior guard, finished with 13 points and seven assists for the Big East-leading Panthers. Fields finished with a game-high 20 points on 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 from the charity stripe 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. Forward Dante Cunningham added seven points and eight rebounds for Villanova, who dropped their second straight game after a loss on the road at Notre Dame.

Missed three-pointers by the Wildcats led to plenty of fast-break opportunities for Fields and the Panther offense. Villanova made just 5-of-19 of its 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 contest.