Raise a glass to a vintage performance
If a sports fan is lucky, he or she gets to see a half-dozen or so "I Was There" games in their lifetime.
A TD Banknorth Garden capacity crowd of 18,871 surely got one for the résumé last night.
With a berth in the Final Four as the prize, Villanova and Pittsburgh waged a fierce, skilled, and dramatic battle that was not decided until Levance Fields's attempt at a 75-footer hit the square above the rim and fell to the floor.
"When the ball left Levance's hands," said Villanova's Scottie Reynolds, about and from whom more will be heard, "it was right on target. He gives a little less on that shot and we could be in another position right now."
That position was a 78-76 victor. Villanova is going to the Final Four for the first time since an eerily similar Wildcats squad won it all in Lexington (the other one, silly) 24 years ago in a Final Four that featured three Big East teams. And if Louisville takes care of business today there will again be three Big East teams in the Final Four. But I can tell you right now none of them will have earned it more than Villanova.
I say this because the Wildcats had to beat Pitt, and they had to do it by making one more big play than a team that specializes in making big plays. Pitt is a team that lives famously on the edge. The Panthers had not had a smooth game in this tournament, but they had been able to out-tough and outfox the opposing team.
And the Panthers had come from 4 points down with 46.5 seconds to go, and again with 20 seconds left, tying the game on a pair of Fields free throws with 5.5 seconds remaining, having regained possession on a downcourt pass by Villanova's Reggie Redding that went awry.
Given a second chance, Redding inbounded to Dante Cunningham, who tipped it over to a flying Reynolds, and the 6-foot-2-inch Villanova guard took off, taking it to the hoop with three Pitt players converging on him and sinking a runner with 0.5 seconds on the clock.
Somehow, that makes it sound simpler than it was.
But it wasn't over until Fields launched his desperation shot, and, given his reputation for late-game heroics, it wasn't surprising that what is a hopeless heave 99.9 percent of the time would actually be a very legitimate attempt to win the game.
No lesser ending would have done this game justice.
It's way too soon for either side to appreciate what they had just been part of, but what all the players and coaches will come to learn is that with their participation in this game they have become a part of NCAA history. For this was both the game of the 2009 tournament and one of the great NCAA games of all time.
The second half was pure basketball theatre, with 12 lead changes in one 12-minute stretch and a succession of can-you-top-this? plays. With Sam Young and DeJuan Blair (20 points, 10 rebounds) scoring 23 of Pitt's first 31 second-half points, the Panthers were up by 4 (67-63) with 3:22 remaining. Then Villanova senior Dwayne Anderson made the game-turning play, a steal and driving 3-point play that pulled the 'Cats within 1.
"We were down and we needed something to get going," Anderson said. "We had a great trap, and I deflected it, and it kind of changed the momentum of the game, which was great for us."
That was the start of a 10-2 run that put the Wildcats up by 4 (73-69), but there was lots of basketball left.
What was distinguishing this game throughout was its high level. It was a great game because kids were making great plays. Turnovers were infrequent (24 total), but with 10.6 seconds left fate intervened.
With Villanova leading by 2 (76-74), Redding elected to throw over the top of a Pitt press. But his pass was too long, and Pitt wound up with it and Fields soon was going to the line to tie it up.
So there was wee bit of pressure on Redding when he had to inbounds the ball a second time after Fields had hit both of his free throws. But Cunningham was able to corral his second toss and get it to Reynolds, who took it from there.
"We always tell them in those end-of-the-game decisions, 'We have to trust your decisions,' " Villanova coach Jay Wright explained. "And that was the point I made to the team. If that would have cost us the game, we would have applauded Reggie for the guts to make the play. Now, after you deal with your team stuff, as a sensible basketball person I can say it probably wasn't a great decision."
But Redding can relax now, because the game ended on a positive action, not a screw-up, thanks to Reynolds.
"I didn't even see the ball go in, actually," Reynolds confessed.
What we had here was pure Big East fratricidal warfare being waged by teams bound by mutual respect. "We battle them all the time," Wright said. "We battle them in recruiting, and it never gets personal. Those kids play their butts off."
None of this basketball bliss could have been possible without the supervision of good officials. You simply cannot have a great basketball game without great officiating and this crew knew when to let 'em play and when to rein 'em in. The crowd, players, and fans can thank Tom O'Neill, Pat Driscoll, and Randy McCall for rising to the moment.
Twenty-four years ago Villanova went to another Final Four. Wright was there as a fan.
"Villanova was a great team, but St. John's, Georgetown, and Syracuse were the teams that year," he recalls. "Villanova kind of sneaks in. And then it's happening all the same. I'm not a superstitious person, or anything like that. I don't care. I'm worried about the next game.
"But if history repeats itself, I'll take it."
Is it too early to say that Villanova appears to be made of the Wright Stuff?