Villanova and Pittsburgh put the madness back in March MadnessPosted by nvr1983 on March 29th, 2009
After nearly 10 days of college basketball critics bemoaning the lack of excitement in this year’s edition of March Madness, two of the Big East’s best teams answered all of those critics by submitting an all-time classic. After one of the strangest 10 seconds you will ever see, Scottie Reynolds made an end-to-end run that might replace the Danny Ainge and Tyus Edney versions on NCAA Tournament highlight reels from now on as this was on a much bigger stage with a trip to the Final 4 on the line. Even with Reynolds miracle, Pittsburgh still had its shot, but a 75-foot desperation heave by Levance Fields was off-target and the Villanova fans which filled TD BankNorth had their biggest moment since 1985 when Rollie Massimino, who attended the games in Boston, guided the Wildcats to their only national championship.
It was a game that showed off everything that the Big East was this year: tough, physical, surprisingly high-scoring, and always entertaining. The Wildcats came out of the gates strong and held a 22-12 lead with 9:27 left before the #1 seeded Panthers joined the fight. Relying on its three stars (DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, and Fields), Jamie Dixon‘s squad cut the lead to 2 with an 8-0 spurt in 1:09. From that point forward, the two team traded punches like world-class heavyweights (back when being a heavyweight actually meant something) as neither team was able to stretch their lead beyond 5 points. Villanova relied on a balanced attack (Dwayne Anderson with 17 points, Reynolds with 15 points, Dante Cunningham with 14 points, and Shane Clark with 11 points) while Pittsburgh relied heavily on its two 1st team All-Big East performers (Young with 28 points and 7 rebounds and Blair with 20 points ant 10 rebounds) to keep it in the game.
After trading haymakers for nearly 37 minutes without either team achieving any separation, Pittsburgh appeared to have a chance to do so coming out of a Villanova timeout with a 4-point lead and the ball out of bounds with 3:05 left. Instead, that’s just when the madness started. Jermaine Dixon, who had hit a tough jumper just moments earlier (with a shot that was reminiscent of one that his brother Maryland star Juan Dixon used to hit not too many years ago) to give the Panthers the lead, had the ball stolen from him and in an attempt to recover fouled Dwyane Anderson for the conventional 3-point play. A Sam Young turnover and a Corey Fisher lay-up later, the Wildcats had the lead with 2:16 left, but Fields hit a pair of free throws to give the Panthers the lead back. The Wildcats showed their mettle by scoring the next 5 points to take a 4-point lead with 47 seconds left. As he has done all night long, Young provided the answer for the Panthers with a clutch 3-pointer (“Onions!” as Bill Raftery would say) with 40 seconds left to cut the lead back to 1. A pair of Fisher free throws and a Reggie Redding free throw allowed the Wildcats to stretch the lead back to 4 with 20 seconds left.
As intense the preceeding action had been, it only set the stage for the game’s final salvo. After being doubled out near the 3-point line, Fields found a wide-open DeJuan Blair underneath the basket with 12 seconds left. How you lose sight of a 6’7″ 265 lbs guy is beyond me. After a 30-second timeout, where I am assuming that Jay Wright drew up an inbounds play, Reggie Redding made one of most incomprehensible plays in recent tournament history when he threw a full court pass that Dante Cunningham chased down to the opposite baseline, but he was unable to bounce the ball of Dixon. With he ball bouncing in the corner of the court, Dixon chased it down and fired it ahead to Fields. With Fields driving to the middle of the court, Corey Fisher stepped in front of him trying to draw a charge, but was whistled for a block with 5.5 seconds left. It was a sequence that left the Villanova student section in the balcony stunned. In a little over 5 seconds, they had gone from trying to figure out how they were going to get to Detroit for the Final 4 to facing the distinct possibility of heading towards OT or perhaps losing the game if Fields made the first and missed the second and Blair put back the rebound like he had earlier in the game.
Just as everyone in the arena expected, Fields calmly hit his two free throws tying the game for the 10th time with 5.5 seconds left. Most of the people in attendance expected that they were headed for an extra 5 minutes and very few would have objected to seeing another 5 minutes of such high-quality basketball, but Scottie Reynolds had other plans. After another dangerous inbounds pass from Redding, Dante Cunningham flipped the ball to a streaking Reynolds who weaved his way through the Panthers’ matador defense before finding himself in front of the basket where he hit a floater with 0.5 seconds left. After the referees sorted out the clock sitation (initially everyone at the game thought the game was over) and cleared the celebrating Villanova players off the court, Pittsburgh had one last chance, but a desperation heave by Fields was off-target and the Villanova players and their boisterous fans resumed their celebration.
Following the game, the Villanova players and fans celebrated with the fans loudly cheering each player and coach as they went took turns climbing up the ladder and cutting down the net. While Scottie Reynolds drew the loudest cheers of any player or coach, those cheers were dwarfed by what happened each time Massimino was shown on the JumboTron.
As with any great game in March, the immediate reaction is to try and place it against the other all-time great games. While it’s hard to minimize the recency effect and the effect of CBS forcefeeding us classic moments with their introductions, quickly skimming a list of the greatest tournament games of all-time (admittedly a little outdated since it was published in 2002) leads me to believe that this game probably belongs somewhere around 20th. It certainly doesn’t fall into the same category as the 1992 Duke-Kentucky Elite 8 game that no less an authority than Alexander Wolff referred to as “perhaps the greatest game ever played”. It lacked the transcendent performance like the one that Christian Laettner delivered (10/10 FG and 10/10 FT for 31 points), the historical significance (Duke was attempting to become the first repeat national champion since John Wooden‘s UCLA team in 1973), or the sublime shooting (Kentucky shot 57% from the field and 57% from beyond the arc only to lose to Duke, which shot 65% from the field and 53% from beyond the arc). Still it probably puts it ahead of notable games such as the Tyus Edney game (UCLA-Missouri) or the Tate George game (UConn-Clemson), which isn’t bad company.
Back in the Pittsburgh locker room, they will be left to ponder what went wrong. Looking back at the game it can be boiled down to a few key things: their inability to get the ball into DeJuan Blair, the free throw shooting disparity, and their inability to play anything more than token defense on Reynolds on the game-winning drive. Even though Blair had a big game statistically (20 point and 10 rebounds), it could have been so much more as he was perfect from the field, but only attempted 9 shots because of Pittsburgh’s inability to get the ball to him. If they managed to get the ball into him more often, Reynolds doesn’t have a chance to become a March legend in the last 5.5 seconds. While the Panthers weren’t atrocious at the line (outside of Blair’s 2-for-6) they were far behind the Wildcats who were nearly perfect. In a game that was so close the difference between winning and losing can often be determined by free throws and that was the case tonight (22/23 for Villanova compared to 21/29 for Pittsburgh). It just goes to show you that teams that hit their free throws in the regular season (Villanova was 22nd in the nation at 74.8%) tend to hit their free throws in big games while those that don’t hit their free throws in the regular season (Pittsburgh was 229th at 67.3%) tend to miss those same free throws. The last point needs no explanation as everyone has seen how poorly the Panthers played defense. Part of the blame falls at the feet of the players for giving up space so easily, but Jamie Dixon also should be criticized for his decision to put Levance Fields in a relative no man’s land as he wasn’t guarding Redding on the inbounds, but he wasn’t guarding anybody else. As a result, Fields was left to watch a streaking Reynolds end Pittsburgh’s season, an image that I am sure will be burned into Levance’s memory for a long time.
Villanova will spend Sunday night watching UNC and Oklahoma battle for the right to play the Wildcats in Detroit next Saturday night. With the win Villanova joins fellow Big East member UConn as the first two confirmed participants in next weekend’s Final 4. A win by #1 overall seed Louisville tomorrow against Michigan State would give the Big East 3 of the 4 participants in Detroit next week, a feat that has only been accomplished one other time in history: 1985 by the Big East, which is also the only time the Wildcats cut down the nets. Villanova fans will certainly be hoping that this is a just a little bit of history repeating itself.