Phil Sheridan | Reynolds stakes claim to the future

Posted: March 17, 2007

CHICAGO - Games like this are supposed to be about the seniors, fighting for the chance to extend their college careers by just 40 more precious minutes.

For Villanova last night, it was all about a freshman.

Scottie Reynolds, equal parts arts and smarts, stood between 'Nova and elimination at the hands of a good but flawed Kentucky team. It was Reynolds fighting to keep Curtis Sumpter, Will Sheridan and Mike Nardi playing in their final NCAA tournament.

It's not that the seniors weren't fighting, too. They were.

Sumpter, who has endured as much bad injury luck to continue his college career as any player in memory, snaked and threaded his way through the bigger, wider Kentucky frontcourt.

Nardi, playing in pain on a bad right ankle, was his usual intense and tenacious self.

Sheridan, as always, did the thankless defensive work inside, rebounding and trying to keep the ball from Kentucky star Randolph Morris.

But Sumpter's shot wasn't falling. He made just three of 11 first-half shots.

Nardi, forced to come off the bench, didn't have that necessary quick step to get his jumper off.

Sheridan played his role, but that has never meant scoring.

It came down to Reynolds, then.

In the first half, he was enough. Kentucky, shredded by Mississippi State's guards in the SEC tournament, worked hard to prepare for Reynolds' drives to the lane. He paid a price each time he tried in the early going. Finally, Reynolds changed his strategy, hitting a couple of three-point shots to loosen the defense up.

'Nova controlled the game for most of the first half, weathering a 71/2-minute stretch without a field goal. Reynolds was the reason.

At one point, he dribbled to his right, found nothing, swung back around to his left with a behind-the-back move, slashed toward the lane, and then, falling back, hit a 12-foot jumper. Even fans of those other Wildcats appreciated what they were watching.

If Reynolds wasn't enough in the second half, it wasn't for lack of will or of toughness.

Midway through the second half, with Kentucky poised to open the first significant lead of the game for either team, Reynolds lowered his shoulder and charged down the lane toward the basket. Kentucky's Bobby Perry stood his ground for a violent collision that sent both players sprawling.

The call could have gone either way. The two officials who raised their right arms to signal the foul looked at each other for a long moment.

Finally, the official closest to the baseline banged his hips with his fists: blocking foul on Perry. Reynolds made just one of his free throws.

A few seconds earlier, he had launched a three-point attempt that started in, grazed the very edge of orange rim, and bounced back out. Reynolds, backing down the floor to get into defensive position, puffed his cheeks in disbelief. That shot would have cut Kentucky's lead to 40-39.

Instead, those other Wildcats opened an eight-point lead.

Reynolds drove, shot, missed. Sumpter put back the rebound.

Reynolds drove, drew contact but no whistle, found himself on all fours, shaking his head at either the collision or the no-call. Both were brutal.

Kept alive by the kid, the seniors got involved. Sumpter hit a three-pointer. Nardi followed with an off-balance three as the shot clock ran out. Fatigue started to show at the defensive end, though, as Kentucky maintained its grip on the game - six points, now seven, then nine again.

This was a game Villanova could have won. A few shots fall during that first-half lull, the whole feel of the game is different. Reynolds gets to the line after some of those second-half body slams, the gap never gets quite so wide.

But it was also a game Villanova could lose. The bad news for Jay Wright's team and its fans at the United Center is that the coach's first wave of success came to an end here. Sumpter, Sheridan, Nardi - they were the common thread for Villanova's three consecutive tournament appearances. They were very good players and, just as important, key pieces to the puzzle Wright has put together on the Main Line.

The good news for Wright is that his seniors leave the program better than they found it. Sophomores Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark will be tournament-hardened upperclassmen. Freshmen Reggie Redding and Casiem Drummond got meaningful experience.

Mostly, though, there is Reynolds. He scored 23 points in his first NCAA tournament game. He gave up his body. He protected the ball.

The temptation is to say that Reynolds becomes The Man for Villanova after this. The truth? He already is.


Post a question or comment for Phil Sheridan at http://go.philly.com/asksheridan,

or by e-mail at psheridan@phillynews.com.

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