"Needless to say, it was a tremendous win for our program," Massimino said. "It probably ranks with the best we've ever had, including the Georgetown win in 1985 and when we beat North Carolina when they were No. 1 (in 1983). Now we've beaten Syracuse, and they're No. 1."
It wasn't supposed to happen. Not against the No. 1 team. Not at the Carrier Dome. Against a pair of future NBA first-round draft choices - Derrick Coleman and Billy Owens. Not against a team that had outscored and outrebounded its opponents by counts of 24 and 12 per game, respectively.
But the Wildcats (9-6 overall, 2-1 league), with four freshmen and four sophomores in their rotation, refused to be awed and handed the Orangemen (10-1, 1-1) their worst Big East loss at the Dome. They shot 55 percent
from the field - 67 percent in the second half. They set a school record by sinking 43 free throws (in 49 attempts). And they outrebounded the more athletic Orangemen by 53-38 while limiting them to 28 percent shooting from the field. Owens missed his first 11 shots and finished 1 for 13.
"It's the biggest win of my career," said Tom Greis, who came off the bench to contribute 16 points and seven rebounds. "How many times do you come in and play before 32,000 people and beat the No. 1 team by 19 points? The young guys on our team are playing like no other young guys I've ever seen. They didn't care that there were 32,000 people here tonight. They played phenomenal."
There were plenty of phenomenal performances by the Wildcats. Sophomore Greg Woodard, who grew up down the road in Rochester, scored a game-high 27 points, going 16 for 17 from the foul line. Freshman Lance Miller grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds. Sophomore Chris Walker did a credible job of battling the Syracuse press and had five assists. Freshman Arron Bain totaled 11 points and five assists.
"I had heard all the things about the Carrier Dome, but I didn't think it was as big as it was," Miller said. "But we didn't feel awed. The coaches told us to go out there and play as hard as we possibly could and follow the game plan. We were relaxed, but we played hard and aggressive for 40 minutes."
The game plan was relatively simple. Massimino had at least three players going to the boards at all times, and the Wildcats paid special attention to boxing out the potent 1-2 rebounding punch of the 6-foot-9 Owens and the 6-10 Coleman. Owens pulled down a game-high 12 boards, but Coleman was limited to seven.
Villanova executed its plan to perfection in the first half, when it took charge right away. The Wildcats had a 20-9 lead with the game less than nine minutes old, and they held a 37-31 advantage at halftime behind Greis, their new sixth man, who scored 12 of his 16 points in the first 20 minutes.
The crowd, accustomed to sitting in on Syracuse victories, as evidenced by the Orangemen's .854 winning percentage in the Dome, figured it would see an Orange crush in the second half. But it was Villanova that did the crushing.
The Wildcats boosted their lead to 16 points at the five-minute mark. Then a 13-3 spurt, sparked by four points by freshman Calvin Byrd, boosted them to their biggest lead of the night - 67-46 - with 8 minutes, 24 seconds to play.
But the Orangemen, despite all the bricks they fired from outside, had one gasp left in them. Choking Villanova with their press, it took them only three minutes to cut the margin from 21 to nine, and they made it seven - 72-65 - with a one-and-one conversion by Owens with 4:17 remaining.
However, with the crowd raising the Teflon-coated fiberglass roof several inches, the Wildcats steadied themselves and pulled away. They went on a 13-0 run, with all of the points coming on 14 free-throw attempts, to take an 85-65 lead with 1:45 left.
"The big thing was our handling their pressure," Massimino said. ''They're so athletic. It seemed like they cut our lead from 21 to 11 in less than a minute (1:16, actually). But the composure of our players was terrific. We played two freshmen and two sophomores most of the time."
For the Orangemen, who were led by Stephen Thompson's 20 points, it was a matter of not being able to sink anything from outside.
"Villanova executed very well in the second half, and we dug too deep a hole," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We made a big effort in coming back as we did, but to come from 20 down is difficult. It doesn't matter how big and athletic you are. In the game of basketball, you've got to make jump shots."
Then, again, who can figure the game of basketball? The Wildcats, four days removed from laying an egg at home against Seton Hall, upset the nation's No. 1 team in the Big East's most intimidating arena.
"What can you say? We're a young team," Greis said. "But we showed up tonight and played our heads off. I'm proud of everybody on this team."