'Nova struggles, loses big to No. 23 St. Johns

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'Nova struggles, loses big to No. 23 St. Johns

Saturday, February 26, 2011
Posted: 4:31 p.m. Updated: 6:20 p.m.
By Dave ZeitlinCSNPhilly.com contributor

BOX SCORE

St. Johns was so adept at scoring Saturday that the Red Storm even made one basket on the wrong end.

But that gift an accidental tip-in from St. Johns senior D.J. Kennedy in the first half couldnt help Villanova stay with the explosive Red Storm as the Wildcats lost a Big East matinee at the Wells Fargo Center, 81-68.

No. 23 St. Johns (19-9 overall, 11-5 Big East), which recently earned its first national ranking in 11 years, has now won eight of its last nine games and is peaking at the right time.

And then theres Villanova, which continues to plummet down the Big East standings. With Saturdays loss, the No. 15 Wildcats (21-8, 9-7) have lost seven of their last 12.

I think St. Johns is playing as well as anyone in the country right now, Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. Theyre well-coached. They play smart, tough, unselfish. I think they have a great feel for how they can win games right now, and thats one of the things were struggling with. Were not clicking.

At the beginning of the season, few would have predicted that St. Johns would be ahead of Villanova in the Big East pecking order. Even fewer would have guessed that after the Wildcats won 16 of their first 17 games and looked like one of the best teams in the nation, let alone the conference.

But in a loaded league where as many as 11 teams could make the NCAA tournament, Wright understands how quickly things can change.

I feel like were getting, believe it or not, a little bit better but not good enough for this league, the Villanova coach said. I dont think were getting worse. If we didnt play Syracuse, St. Johns, Pitt, then maybe it might show. But its not good enough right now in this league.

Against the red-hot Red Storm, Villanova looked overmatched at times.

Through the first four minutes, St. Johns was in the process of an even larger demolition than what took place next door at the Building Formerly Known as The Spectrum, jumping out to an 18-4 lead on the strength of four three-pointers.

Thanks in large part to the hot hand of reserve guard Dominic Cheek (11 points), the Wildcats clawed back into the game, trailing only 41-36 at the half. But Villanova never could take the lead, despite a few chances to do so after the break.

St. Johns, which pressed on defense and attacked on offense throughout the afternoon, continued to put the pressure on in the final couple of minutes to force timely Nova turnovers, gobble up a couple of key offensive rebounds off missed free throws, and run away with its first road win against a nationally ranked team since 2002.

The closest the 'Cats came was when they pulled within one at 65-64 with four minutes left on a traditional three-point play from Maalik Wayns, who got the start.

They kept playing, Wayns said of St. Johns. Theyve got a lot of senior leaders whove been through that. Theyve lost tough games and theyve won tough games. That wasnt anything new to them. They kept a great attitude and put up a good win.

Wayns finished with 19 points, while fellow guard Corey Stokes led the way for Nova with 20 points on 6-for-10 shooting from three-point range.

But that was nothing compared to St. Johns guard Dwight Hardy, who was absolutely sensational for the Red Storm. Hardy finished with 34 points, which included a crucial, off-balance jumper that gave his team a 70-64 lead with 2:20 remaining.

Hardy, whos averaging a team-best 17.3 points per game, shot 9-for-16 from the floor, 5-for-9 from three-point range and 11-for-13 from the foul line.

We tried to trap him, we tried to deny him, we went a little zone, Wright said. Hes just awesome. Hes playing great. And whats really interesting about him is he doesnt turn the ball over. Hes got the ball all the time at the end of the shot clock and he ends the game with one turnover. Hes awesome.

Hes a killer, added Stokes. Coach Wright always tells me, (Corey) Fisher, Maalik, and Cheek to be a killer. Hes a killer.

While the Red Storms leading scorer had a game to remember, Villanovas leading scorer, Corey Fisher, had one hed like to forget. The Cats senior guard mustered just two points, shooting a dreadful 1-for-10 from the field and 0-for-8 from three-point range.

To his credit, Fisher had seven assists to go with one turnover, but his poor shooting performance comes on the heels of a 3-for-16 night against Syracuse on Monday. When asked what was wrong with his star guard, Wright repeated the phrase I dont know three times. But he hopes the shooting slump will end.

The best thing we can do is tell him to keep shooting, Wright said. We have confidence in him. Were going to ride him.

Fisher and Villanova will get a chance for redemption in just two days as the Wildcats take on No. 9 Notre Dame in a Big Monday battle in South Bend. Villanova then has another road game against a Top 10 team next Saturday vs. No. 4 Pitt before the Big East tournament begins.

In other words, things wont get any easier for the slumping 'Cats.

The good thing about the Big East is you get a chance to play Big East teams, Wright said. I would like us to be playing better right now obviously. But I do see a little improvement. I would like to see even more in our next two games, win or lose.
E-mail Dave Zeitlin at djzeitlin@gmail.com

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

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Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Like many people who come from nearby high schools, Penn senior Chris Hatler has been running at the Penn Relays since he was 15. But his initial experience at the famed meet did not go exactly as planned

“The first relay ever, I fell in the first 100 meters,” he said, “and made a fool of myself.”

Such can be the dangers of overwhelmed teenagers competing at a competition that also features college and professional stars — a three-day track & field carnival that is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country.

But last year, Hatler became one of those college stars himself, helping Penn to a dramatic win in the 4xmile — the host school’s first win in that event since 1950 and its first championship in any of the meet’s marquee distance relays since 1974.

Now, with the 123rd running of the Penn Relays set to kick off in full Thursday — the same day that the NFL draft begins across town — Hatler is ready to add another wheel before graduating, along with fellow senior Nick Tuck.

“Last year was exciting to win the 4xmile, but I kinda felt like for the seniors last year, it was their win, it was their wheel,” said Hatler, who also helped the Quakers set a school record in last year’s distance medley relay. “I know Nick and I kinda have a little grudge here. We want our own wheel for ourselves our senior year. So we’re gonna come out and see what we can do.”

Although the USA vs. the World races Saturday to highlight the meet, the college relays are often the most exciting with wild sprints to the finish line occurring in front of packed Franklin Field crowds. Last year, in between Team USA races, then-senior Thomas Awad chased down two other runners in the 4xmile to give Penn the victory on national TV, before being mobbed by Hatler, Tuck and Keaton Naff. 

Hatler couldn’t quite see the track from where he was standing but had a feeling that Awad — one of the most accomplished athletes in Penn’s track & field history — would come through on the final lap of his Penn Relays career.

“You never bet against Tom at the end of the race,” said Hatler, who earlier this year cracked the 4-minute-mile barrier. “We kinda knew it was gonna happen.”

Few other people expected it because the host school hasn’t always been competitive in the college championships at Penn Relays. But another local school always is — Villanova.

And the Wildcats are glad to get some more competition from their Big 5 rival.

“It was thrilling for me to see it happen,” Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “This is really the home school. We’re happy to be sharing the stress of Penn [Relays] every year with the real home school.”

As for his own team, O’Sullivan said the Wildcats are dealing with injuries so it may not be in top form for the men’s distance medley relay (Friday, 5:30 p.m.), men’s 4xmile (Saturday, 1:15 p.m.) and the men’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:40 p.m.), the first two of which will be broadcast on NBC Sports.

But he touted the talent of redshirt freshman Logan Wetzel, among others, and seems ready to throw some youngsters into the fire.

“I always say Penn is a defining arena for kids to grow up,” said O’Sullivan, who ran the Penn Relays as a student at Villanova. “You really start to learn. You prepare a year for Penn. 

“My junior year, we were annihilated, lost everything, and it one of the most humiliating moments of my life because so much is expected of you and you drop the ball. I spent a whole year just waiting for Penn, just training for Penn. The year I made the Olympic team, I kid you not, running at Penn, winning at Penn, was way more important for me at that time of my life. That’s how big it is.”

Villanova women’s coach Gina Procaccio also ran the Penn Relays in college and has similar feelings about the significance of the meet. And she’s ready to lead her powerhouse teams to more championships in the women’s distance medley relay (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.), the women’s 4x1500 (Friday, 1:20 p.m.) and the women’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).

Those relay teams will be led by Angel Piccirillo, a fifth-year senior who redshirted last year, and junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner — two of the best distance runners in the NCAA. But it won’t be easy for them as this year’s field will be stacked with the likes of Oregon and Stanford.

But no one has done better at Penn Relays than the Villanova women, who have won 14 DMRs all time, including four straight from 2012-2015.

“I’m not one to shy away from the competition,” Procaccio said. “I like to earn those wins.”

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

About midway through Monday night's Big 5 Hall of Fame ceremony, the oldest inductee of this year's class paid homage to the youngest.

That's how much hoops legend George Raveling, a 1960 Villanova graduate, was blown away by Penn alum Ibrahim Jaaber's impassioned speech that ended with a powerful poem about how basketball saved him.

"It kept running through my mind that you represent everything good about sports," Raveling said to Jaaber. "And I hope you'll continue to use your wisdom, your influence, to make the game better, to make the world better. As a 79-year-old-man, soon to be 80 in June, I want to tell you that if I come back in the next life, I want to be like you."

That touching moment, in many ways, was a perfect encapsulation of the ties that bind the Big 5, from one generation to the next. But aside from Raveling and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon -- who, despite battling Alzheimer's, courageously gave an acceptance speech to a standing ovation at the Palestra -- this year's class was filled with contemporary guards who clashed in some great Big 5 games not too long ago.

Among them were two current NBA players in Saint Joseph's icon Jameer Nelson (class of 2004) and former 'Nova star Randy Foye (2006), as well as Temple's Lynn Greer (2002) and Jaaber (2007). La Salle women's player Carlene Hightower (2008) was the other member of the star-studded class defined by tough, gritty Philadelphia guards.

"The inductees here for the Hall of Fame have got to be maybe the greatest class we've ever put together," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who closed the night by accepting the Big 5 Coach of the Year award right after Josh Hart took home Player of the Year honors. "I grew up in Philadelphia and we always talk about what a great place the Palestra is -- and it is. But when you listen to Lynn, Randy, Coach Rav, Ibby, Jameer, you know why this is a great place. It's because of all the great man that have played here -- outstanding, humble, articulate, intelligent men that understand they're part of something that's bigger than themselves. That's what makes the Big 5. That's what makes the Palestra."

Nelson, the National Player of the Year during St. Joe’s historic 2003-04 season, certainly showed what kind of person he is, inviting all of his old Hawks teammates who were in attendance to stand behind him as he accepted his Hall of Fame award. And he even choked up at one point as he described what those teammates, coach Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's University have meant to him as he's forged a long and fruitful NBA career.

"Without them, none of this would be possible," said Nelson, the Hawks' all-time leader in points (2,094) and assists (713). "These guys mean the world to me."

Nelson, now with the Denver Nuggets, just wrapped up his 13th season in the NBA, calling it an "unbelievable ride" for a 5-foot-11 kid from Chester. That's two more years spent in the league than Foye, who Nelson thanked for forcing him to be better back in their college days. He also called Greer one of his "great friends" and said that Jaaber's speech "touched me in so many different ways, I wish more young kids could hear it."

"I'm very grateful to be inducted with you guys," Nelson said, although he did point out that when he was at St. Joe's, the Hawks had Villanova down 43-9 at halftime one year. 

"But those next couple years, we paid y'all back," said Foye, now with the Brooklyn Nets, during his own speech.

Those rivalries were especially meaningful to Foye, who also played against Jaaber in both high school and college.

"Being from North Jersey, you never hear about the Big 5," said Foye, a first-team All-American and Big 5 Player of the Year in 2006. "For me coming here and witnessing it up close and personal, it's just something truly amazing."

Foye added that everywhere he goes, he tries to embody what a Philly guard is -- "small but play big," as he put it -- while reminding people that he's proud to be a Villanova alum. The same can be said of Raveling, a longtime college coach and executive who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

"I'm so proud to say I'm a Big 5 product -- and a proud graduate of Villanova University," Raveling said. "I look back many times and realize the wisest decision I ever made in my lifetime was to enroll at Villanova University."

Just as he opened his speech, Raveling also closed it by saying he was "proud" to enter the Big 5 Hall of Fame the same year as Jaaber, whose remarks touched on spirituality, family and a unique journey from Morocco to New Jersey to Penn.

Jaaber also made sure to thank the person who perhaps embodies the Big 5 more than anyone else: former La Salle player, former Penn coach and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy.

"I don't think I could have had a better coach for me in my situation than my Coach Dunphy," said Jaaber, the 2006-07 Big 5 Player of the Year and the all-time Ivy League leader in steals (303). "I'm almost embarrassed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before Coach Dunphy."