Villanova dodges a disaster

Posted: March 20, 2009

Even Armani collars can feel tight at this time of year. Jay Wright learned that last night.

His Villanova basketball team was fighting for its NCAA tournament life, staring down the embarrassment of being the day's biggest upset victim. The Wildcats played pressure defense throughout an exhausting second half, whittling a 14-point deficit to 11 and then 9 and then 6.

The Armani would relax a bit as order slowly was restored. Then American University's Garrison Carr would nail a three-point shot or Derrick Mercer would drive the lane and kick it out to a teammate, and Villanova would be looking up at 8, 9, 10 points again.

Villanova got caught in the perfect storm every favored team dreads: an opponent with nothing to lose but plenty of grit, an arena stocked with neutral or even hostile (read: Connecticut) fans who loudly take up the underdog's cause, and - worse yet - a case of very tight shirt collars.

These are variables dreaded by the control freak in every coach, even the best-dressed ones.

"You don't wish for this," Wright said. "You definitely don't wish for this. You have to temper warning your players about this and overdoing it and seeming like you're panicked."

American turned out to be exactly the kind of opponent capable of pulling such an upset. Last year, the Eagles were a No. 16 seed that found itself in a tight game with No. 1 seed Tennessee. Midway through the second half, with those garish orange collars at their tightest, the Tennessee players began to assert themselves.

American blinked. The players knew it. Their coach, Jeff Jones, knew it. It took five months before he could watch the tape of the game. When he did, he saw what he called a "deer in the headlights" look in his players' eyes.

So this year's berth, a 14th seed against No. 3 Villanova, was something life rarely gives us: a do-over. The Eagles believed in their hearts they would know what to do if they were in the same position, and now here was a chance to prove it.

American, 41-31, at the half.

American, 45-31, a minute into the second half.

Then it was on. Wright picked precisely the correct moment to start pressing full-court. Not only did it make American's guards, Carr and Mercer, work much harder, it forced the very stiff 'Nova players to hustle. To move instead of think. To impose their superior size and athleticism on American.

"In the end," Wright said, "we had bigger, stronger athletes. They were better prepared and executed better. We were able to wear them down."

Still, the Eagles would not blink. Carr hit a tough three-pointer with 14 minutes, 15 seconds remaining to open the lead back to nine. A minute later, he hit a ridiculous three-pointer - an off-balance turnaround from the right side of the arc - to make it 10 again.

Now the Armani must have been chafing and scraping like something straight off the rack at Wal-Mart. There wasn't much Wright could do but stay the course. Villanova kept pressing and pressing and, gradually, the Eagles wore down.

This time, when 'Nova cut it to six on a nice rebound and follow by Dwayne Anderson, Carr missed his three at the other end. The Wildcats chipped away, and American was forced into the wrong shots by the wrong players - missed jumpers that the bigger Villanova players easily rebounded and turned into opportunities at the offensive end.

Scottie Reynolds, held to two missed three-point attempts in the first half, drove the lane and laid the ball in to tie the game at 55. It was the first tie since 24-all, 23 minutes earlier.

Villanova fans, the lumps knocked out of their throats, gave a roar that shamed American's ad hoc coalition of supporters. The Wachovia Center rocked when Anderson made a three-pointer to give Villanova its first lead since Rollie Massimino was the coach.

American's players vowed they wouldn't blink if they got another shot. And they didn't. There were no deer caught in NCAA headlights. There was only a scrappy, undersize team that fought as well as it could against a bigger, more talented opponent playing in its hometown.

"Villanova wore us down," Jones said. "We weren't able to keep pace at the end."

If American didn't blink, neither did Villanova. The Wildcats dodged disaster and may be stronger for it.

"Now that it's over," Wright said, "I think it's going to be really good. We did it with defense. We drove the ball. This game will be something in the back of our mind for the next game."

It was not the crisp, clean designer win that Wright would have preferred. But it suited him as well as anything by Armani.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan

at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read

his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.


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