Saturday Recap: Nova & UCONN Advance

    
March 29th, 2009
The Big East, in the final months of commissioner Mike Tranghese’s tenure, went into Saturday guaranteed at least one spot in the Final Four with Pittsburgh and Villanova meeting in Boston. But how those two fought for the East Regional title is something that will be remembered for a long time to come, with the Wildcats winning on a Scottie Reynolds shot with 0.5 seconds remaining. A Levance Fields heave from about seventy feet was online but long, sealing the 78-76 win and the Wildcats’ first Final Four since 1985. Coincidentally that was also the last time one conference (Big East) had three teams in the Final Four, something that can become a reality with a Louisville win tomorrow. Are the stars aligning for Villanova?

 

“Villanova was a great team, but St. John's and Syracuse and Georgetown were the teams that year,” noted head coach Jay Wright. “Villanova kind of sneaks in; and [now] it's all happening the same.” Neither team shot the ball well from beyond the arc, combining to make just eleven of thirty-eight attempts. What ensued was a physical game predicated on holding your own on the glass and driving to the basket to put points on the board. The Panthers, who came into the regional final with a rebounding margin of +9.7, lost the battle on the boards by five (33-28) to a tough group of Wildcats that can more than hold their own despite lacking height on the frontline.

 

Villanova was also the more balanced team from a scoring standpoint with four starters scoring in double figures (Dwayne Anderson led with seventeen). On the other hand, the big three of Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair scored fifty-eight of their seventy-six points. Prevailing wisdom said that if Pittsburgh didn’t get more from the supporting cast they were in trouble; the other backcourt players combined for ten points. Gilbert Brown scored eight but starter Tyrell Biggs went scoreless and played just fifteen ineffective minutes. But to look at such things would be nitpicking; this game came down to whoever had the ball last and it was Reynolds who came through with the game’s biggest play.

 

After allowing a 76-72 lead slip away within fifteen seconds, Villanova had one last chance to make something happen. The inbounds pass to Dante Cunningham just beat a five-second call but the senior was able to maker the catch and get it to Reynolds. From there the junior attacked the basket and knocked down a floater with five-tenths of a second remaining on the clock. As for Fields, who hit a pair of free throws to tie the game, emotions went from going to overtime to realizing that his Panther career was over.

 

“Reynolds just made a great play going to the basket,” said Fields. “It went from having a chance of going to overtime and possibly winning the game to [our] season being over.” March can do that to you; unfortunately for Pittsburgh they were the ones on the short end in Boston.

 

Connecticut survives Missouri, thanks in large part to a tough freshman from the Bronx.

 

The Huskies were getting what they wanted on the offensive end, shooting seventy percent in the first half. But their six-point lead at the intermission felt smaller due to their eleven turnovers, courtesy of Missouri’s pressure defense. Frankly, they needed a guy who could make the Tigers pay for their attacking style, and that man was Kemba Walker. The freshman played like a man possessed, scoring a career-high 23 points, fourteen of which came in the second half. For all the heavy lifting that the upperclassmen have done in the tournament for Jim Calhoun’s team, it was time for a child to lead the Huskies to an 82-75 win and a trip to Detroit.

 

“There [aren’t] many quicker guards in the United States than him,” said Calhoun. “We played him 25 minutes, and he was that spark we needed to break pressure, to try to take them -- we actually did take them out of some pressure.” Just when the Tigers made a play to edge closer (or take a lead), there was Walker or A.J. Price (18 points) to make a play to keep the tempo from getting out of hand. Hasheem Thabeet wasn’t much of a presence on the offensive end with just five points, but the 7-foot-3 junior did grab thirteen rebounds on the afternoon. Forwards Jeff Adrien and Stanley Robinson made up for Thabeet’s lack of offense with a combined twenty-five points, and they also combined to block seven shots.

 

The individual matchups weren’t in favor of Adrien, especially given how well Purdue’s Robbie Hummel played in the first half when guarded by the senior on Thursday. But Adrien brought his blue-collar attitude and made it work for the Huskies. “Mike [Anderson] did a terrific job of playing both big and small against us and made it more difficult and Jeff had to play a free man,” said Calhoun. “He had to play different kind of people, and he was just great.” Along with Adrien today, the development of Robinson over the last three weeks has rendered moot the question of how this team would cope without Jerome Dyson. Two more solid games from the man they call “Sticks” and UConn could have their third national title.

 

As for the Tigers they were unable to take advantage of the three-point line (5-for-18), and they did not get to the foul line as often as they did against Memphis. Two days after going 30-for-45 from the charity stripe, Mike Anderson’s Tigers were just 6-for-12. Connecticut, a team that fouls less than any team in the country, went 26-for-32 from the line (10-for-10 in the final 1:02). The Huskies were also a +15 in rebounding margin, and if you dominate the boards you stand a good chance of winning more times than not. But even with guys like Leo Lyons, Matt Lawrence and DeMarre Carroll moving on this could be a watershed moment in Missouri basketball history.

 

For the first time in school history the Tigers won thirty games in a season, and reserves Justin Safford (nine points) and Keith Ramsey (eight points) were key contributors to the turn that resulted in the Tigers grabbing control of the game. They’ll be back, as will warrior J.T. Tiller. There’s quite a bit to build on in Columbia, something that Coach Anderson acknowledged after the game.

“But hopefully we can -- we've had an opportunity to taste some of it,” said Anderson. “And I think our guys can -- the younger guys that experienced it, as these guys talked about, they can pass that tradition on, that feeling, [and] they have tasted it. Hopefully they want to work extremely hard to have an opportunity to get back.” It certainly isn’t far-fetched to envision Missouri back in this position a year from now.

 

Saturday Superlatives

 

Player of the Day: Connecticut G Kemba Walker (23 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists)

 

Team of the Day: Villanova (first Final Four since 1985)

 

Clutch Performance of the Day: Scottie Reynolds’ full-court dash to beat Pittsburgh

 

Quote of the Day: “This is a time in your life you will never forget. You will always remember these big games and these big trips and things like that. You go to war with these guys. 30-some-odd times throughout the year, it is no different. When you lose it is very gut wrenching. It can be heartbreaking. I'm sure it was for some of the Missouri players…Like I said these bonds will be formed and strong for the rest of your life. You won't ever forget these guys.”

 

- Connecticut guard A.J. Price

 

Saturday’s Results (Regional Finals)

West (Glendale, AZ): #1 Connecticut 82, #3 Missouri 75

East (Boston, MA): #3 Villanova 78, #1 Pittsburgh 76

 

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