Villanova basketball is back on the map. After an eight-year hiatus from the national polls, Villanova returned to the standings as No. 24 in the AP and No. 25 in the ESPN/USA polls on Monday.
Prior to Wednesday night’s 81-76 loss at the Hartford Civic Center, the ‘Cats’ mid-season three-game winning streak, including a big win over then-No. 2 Kansas and a blowout at Rutgers, had garnered national praise.
Although Villanova’s run ultimately came to an end this week, there is no counting this team out, as long as they keep playing with attitude.
After trailing for most of the first half, the ‘Cats exploded on a 14-0 run with less than six minutes to play. During those three minutes, the team hit four straight threes, two of which came from Mike Nardi. The sophomore point guard would end up scoring a season-high 20 points, including a career-high six 3-pointers, in the game.
Going into halftime, ‘Nova held a 40-38 advantage. The game remained close throughout the second half, with neither team ever leading by more than five points.
Then with thirty seconds left in regulation, a frustrated Villanova head coach, Jay Wright, was called for a technical foul. Rashad Anderson, who had just made a key block against Randy Foye, went to the line and hit both shots to put the Huskies up, 77-72, and the game away.
By defeating Villanova in what was Coach Jim Calhoun’s 1,000th career game, the Huskies earned their first win over a ranked opponent in four tries.
However, Villanova’s earlier accomplishments in the week cannot be overlooked.
Last weekend’s journey to Rutgers had to have some on the ‘Nova bench a little nervous, especially considering past history. The ‘Cats had lost three of their last four games against Rutgers, including one victory that knocked Villanova out of the NIT last year. Also, the Scarlet Knights were coming off a very impressive showing against No. 4 Syracuse. Also, the game was being played in the RAC, one of the hardest Big East arenas to play in.
However, with all that against them, the ‘Cats went in and handled their business relatively easily. They led the game from early on, establishing a 10-point advantage not even four minutes into the game.
Villanova took the wind right out of the home crowd’s sails, as early three-pointers by Randy Foye and Allan Ray silenced the raucous mob. Compounded by turnovers by Rutgers, Villanova seamlessly rolled to a 33-point victory, 94-61.
Not too many people would think that a game against a sub-.500 team at the end of January would be a defining game, but this one was for the ‘Cats. This game had all the makings of an upset. Villanova was coming off victories against two very good teams, Kansas and Notre Dame. The Scarlet Knights had just endured a tough loss at home against the Orangemen, but one where they established some confidence in themselves.
With Connecticut in waiting, some teams might have looked past the below .500 Rutgers team, but Jay Wright had his troops ready to go, and from the opening tip, the ‘Cats were focused and knew what they had to do.
Ray, who was awarded Big East Player of the Week for his games against Notre Dame and Rutgers, led the team in scoring with 21 points and was a very impressive from the three-point line, hitting five of his seven attempts.
Will Sheridan, who has been filling in for Jason Fraser, had another impressive game with 12 points, six boards and two blocked shots.
Fraser, who had his hand wrapped up, saw limited time, but was still effective, scoring four points and grabbing seven boards in only 13 minutes.
Curtis Sumpter and Foye also had solid games, scoring 16 and 14 points, respectively.
Everyone saw action in the game, including Baker Dunleavy, Tommy Grace and Ross Condon, who continued Villanova’s impressive performance.
Dunleavy scored five points in five minutes, while Grace connected on a deep three, right in front of the Villanova bench late in the shot clock.
While their momentum may have been cooled in Hartford, the Wildcats will look to turn up the heat again on Saturday night when they take on Providence. In their last meeting, ‘Nova defeated the Friars, 83-78, in overtime.
This weekend’s game marks the team’s first apperance in the Pavilion in three weeks. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:35 p.m.