'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

NCAA Tournament wrap: UNC edges out Kentucky on Maye game-winner

NCAA Tournament wrap: UNC edges out Kentucky on Maye game-winner

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Luke Maye hit a jumper with 0.3 seconds left, and top-seeded North Carolina held off Kentucky 75-73 to earn the Tar Heels' second straight trip to the Final Four and 20th all-time in Sunday's showdown of college basketball's elite in the South Regional.

The Tar Heels (31-7) will play Midwest champ Oregon on Saturday in Phoenix in the national semifinal.

North Carolina took control with a 12-0 run within the final 5 minutes. Kentucky's freshmen De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk hit three quick 3s, the last two by Monk and his second with 7.2 seconds left tied it up at 73.

Theo Pinson brought the ball down, passed back to Maye. The sophomore from Huntersville, North Carolina, knocked it down for the win with his feet on the 3-point line.

The Wildcats had one last chance, but Derek Willis' inbound pass went out of bounds on the far end.

Kentucky (32-6) will miss out on the Final Four for the second straight year.

South Carolina beats Florida to reach first Final Four
NEW YORK -- It's only right that South Carolina's first trip to Final Four was earned through its defense.

A team known for a swarming zone used it effectively down the stretch to beat Florida 77-70 on Sunday and win the East Regional at Madison Square Garden.

Sindarius Thornwell scored 26 points for the seventh-seeded Gamecocks (26-10) against the fourth-seeded Gators (27-9) in the all-Southeastern Conference matchup.

South Carolina will face Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed from the West Regional, in the Final Four on Saturday at Glendale, Arizona.

"Gamecock Nation, we heard you loud and clear," coach Frank Martin roared as the team prepared to cut down the nets. "We'll see you in Phoenix."

The game was as close as expected until the final minute. There were 14 lead changes and 10 ties. The last lead change came on two free throws by Thornwell with 2:24 left that made it 65-63. Florida managed just three field goals over the final 3:55.

Thornwell, the regional MVP, followed the deciding free throws with a nice assist to Maik Kotsar for a 4-point lead. It seemed Thornwell, who scored eight straight points for the Gamecocks, was always where he needed to be including making a steal with 40 seconds left that turned into a 73-68 lead.

"I just made plays," Thornwell said. "Plays needed to be made down the stretch and I stepped up and made plays."

"Thornwell was just being Thornwell," Florida coach Mike White said of the SEC player of the year. "He's one of the best players in the country."

PJ Dozier added 17 points for the Gamecocks, Chris Silva had 13 and Kotsar 12.

It all totaled to a Final Four trip for Martin, he of the booming voice and terrifying faces.

Justin Leon had 18 points for the Gators who managed a 40-33 halftime lead on 7-for-12 shooting from 3-point range. But that was it. Florida was 0 for 14 from beyond the arc in the second half, a lot like the 0-for-17 effort the Gators had in their first meeting with South Carolina this season.

South Carolina, which forced Florida into 16 turnovers, finished 23 for 31 from the free throw line, including a 9-for-10 effort from Thornwell.

NCAA Tournament Wrap: Gonzaga reaches 1st Final Four; Oregon upsets Kansas

NCAA Tournament Wrap: Gonzaga reaches 1st Final Four; Oregon upsets Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Tyler Dorsey poured in 27 points, Dillon Brooks added 17 and plucky Oregon ended Kansas' romp through the NCAA Tournament with a 74-60 victory Saturday night that gave the Ducks their first Final Four trip in nearly 80 years.

Dylan Ennis added 12 points for the Ducks (33-5), who took the lead with 16 minutes left in the first half and never trailed again, giving coach Dana Altman his first trip to the national semifinals.

They'll face the winner of Sunday's game between North Carolina and Kentucky in Glendale, Arizona.

Player of the year front-runner Frank Mason III had 21 points in his final game for the Jayhawks (31-5), who had rolled to the Elite Eight by an average margin of 30 points. But their dream season ended with a thud just 40 minutes from campus on a night where very little went right (see full recap).

Gonzaga beats Xavier to reach 1st Final Four
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points while orchestrating Gonzaga's efficient offense, and the Zags finally shook their overrated tag by routing Xavier 83-59 on Saturday to reach the Final Four for the first time.

Gonzaga (36-1) has been dogged by criticism through the years despite winning consistently, in part for playing in a weak conference but also for never making the Final Four.

On the cusp of history, the Zags took it head on with a superb all-around game to give coach Mark Few the one missing piece of his resume.

Gonzaga found the range from the perimeter after struggling the first three NCAA games, making 12 of 24 from 3-point range. The defense, a soft spot in the past, shut down the underdog and 11th-seeded Musketeers (24-14) to win the West Region.

The Zags will face the winner between South Carolina and Florida in next week's Final Four in Arizona (see full recap).