Wildcats roll past Hurricanes 75-56 on Senior Night

Leslie Combs

The seniors left the Pavilion in style tonight as Villanova decisively beat Big East foe Miami 75-56.

Despite the added energy and emotion walk-on senior Lou Ruskey contributed in the starting line-up, the ‘Cats once again struggled from the start, while Miami took an early lead. It was not until 11:52 left in the first that ‘Nova began its 14-2 run to give it the first lead of the game. At the first buzzer, the run extended to 24-6 and the ‘Cats entered the locker room up 30-19.

‘Nova stormed out in the second and with aggressive play and its shots falling at 46.2 percent from the field. The ‘Cats went up as high as 30 and held the Hurricane’s scoreless for 3:05 midway through the half cruising to a much needed victory in the boisterous Pavilion’s last run of the season.

Following the ‘Cats season finale on their home court head coach Jay Wright was pleased with his team’s performance, but cautionary about ‘Nova’s future.

“It was fun to see our guys play hard and defend,” Wright said. “That’s how we want to play, but I’d be a fool to say we’ve got it going because we have done this before and then have gone back. We just have to keep this going.”

Perhaps the key player tonight keeping things going for the ‘Cats was not a senior, but was instead Main Line rookie Curtis Sumpter, whose dunk at the buzzer off Michael Claxton’s assist gave him a career high 21 points.

“I always just go out and play my role, but tonight I was just on,” Sumpter said of his game tonight.

Part of Villanova’s fabled freshmen four class, the Brooklyn native has had to make many adjustments since bringing his game to the collegiate level, moving from the post to the perimeter. In high school he was used to having the shots, taking them and racking up the points, but with the Wildcats deep in shooters, Sumpter’s concentration this year moved from offensive to defensive strategy and rebounding. Tonight he stepped up and played both, leading the team in both points and blocks with 21 and three. He also added five rebounds and two steals and worked with seniors Gary Buchanan and Andrew Sullivan to shut down the always-lurking offensive gun of Miami’s Darius Rice. The Hurricane junior only put in 15 points, but still led Miami in scoring.

Villanova’s senior class did not let Sumpter take all the Hurricane’s thunder on tits honored night. Along with the impressive pressure on Rice, Sullivan matched classmate Ricky Wright’s 11 rebounds and added eight points of his own, while Wright put down 10 to record his third double-double of the season. Though lacking offensively, Buchanan stepped up on the other end and finished the night with five steals and five points.

“I am happy for our seniors,” Wright said. “They went out playing Villanova basketball on this court.”

The Senior Night win marked the second time the Wildcats’ overpowered the Hurricanes this season, previously winning in overtime Feb. 8, 72-67. It was a much needed victory for ‘Nova’s squad, returning from a tough road loss to Providence last Saturday, and the wind tonight secures the ‘Cats second place spot in the Big East East with an 8-4 conference record behind UConn’s record of 9-4. ‘Nova is currently 15-10 overall, while Miami falls to 10-14 and 3-10 in the Big East.

With only four games left on the schedule, the ‘Cats came into tonight’s last home stand in a must win situation if they are to remain on the bubble come Selection Sunday. Following a 5-0 conference streak early in the season, ‘Nova has had an up and down journey, inconsistent basketball plaguing its NCAA tournament hopes.

Wright acknowledges the team’s flaws and says at this point in the season it is not his job to motivate the team to play Villanova basketball. Instead, the senior leaders, a class never to receive an invite to the Big Dance, must step up and continue to play the aggressive basketball on display tonight.

“I have been in it enough to know if the coach is making you do it, it ain’t happening,” Wright said of pressing ‘Nova’s tournament chances upon the team. “We have to get to the point where seniors are taking over.”

Committing only 11 turnovers, while forcing 21 and creating 15 steals, the ‘Cats appear to be back on track to make a run going into the season’s final stretch.

But ‘Nova’s remaining schedule is not an easy one. The ‘Cats travel the Turnpike to face Seton Hall Thursday at 7:30 p.m., rescheduled due to previous snow cancellation. The Pirates are on an impressive seven game win streak, beating top ranked Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Rutgers most recently. Following Seton Hall, ‘Nova travels to Virginia Tech Saturday and then Boston College Tuesday. The ‘Cats know they cannot afford to let their guard down and come out sluggish in any of these games if they are to stay in the bid hunt.

“The sole focus is really getting our team back to playing Villanova basketball, playing hard,” Ricky Wright said. “I think we got away from that at times, but we just keep working at it and today we did it and hopefully we do it Thursday and Saturday.”

The ‘Cats will continue to play without freshmen Jason Fraser, who played just three minutes in their loss to Providence and sat out tonight. The forward is sidelined two-four weeks as a result of a stress reaction in his left foot.