March 12, 2008

Hot second half lifts Villanova over Syracuse

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NEW YORK It remains unclear whether Villanova is headed to the NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats made sure they won't get passed over in favor of a Big East rival.

The eight-seeded Wildcats hammered ninth-seeded Syracuse 82-63 Wednesday behind a game-high 22-points from Scottie Reynolds in the opening game of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. The game was widely viewed as a must-win for either team to have a shot at landing an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova (20-11) and Syracuse (19-13) entered with similar resumes; each had 19 overall wins and identical 9-9 records in league play. But Villanova now holds a 2-1 edge head-to-head.

"I hope we've done enough," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "But I know that is me saying that. We are really just happy to be playing another day."

Villanova faces top-seeded Georgetown at noon Thursday, and an upset of the Hoyas would make it virtually impossible to keep the Wildcats out of the field of 65.

The Wildcats, who have won their first game in the Big East Tournament for five consecutive seasons, lost their only regular-season meeting with Georgetown 55-53 after a controversial foul call was made in the final second Feb. 11 in Washington, D.C. Villanova freshman Corey Stokes was whistled for a blocking foul 70 feet from the basket, which led to Jonathan Wallace knocking down two game-winning free throws.

The main knock on Villanova is its RPI. The Wildcats were 57th in the computer rankings before facing the Orange, and beating the Hoyas, who are seventh, would significantly boost that number.

Few bubble teams have more quality wins than the Wildcats, who now have five wins over opponents in the RPI top 50 (Connecticut, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Syracuse twice).

Syracuse is 46th in the RPI, but finishes with only two wins against the top 50 (Georgetown and Marquette), a factor that likely will have the Orange missing the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season. It will be the first time the Orange have been left out in back-to-back seasons since 1981 and '82.

"Even if we won, I was not going to watch (the selection show on Sunday)," Syracuse guard Paul Harris said. "I watched last year when I thought we were in, so I told myself no matter what, I'm not going to watch."

Villanova pulled away from a tie with a decisive 30-10 run that gave them a 71-51 lead with 3:29 left. Syracuse had controlled the game early, jumping out to an 18-7 lead when freshman Donte Greene knocked down three 3-pointers in a row. But the Wildcats closed the first half on an 8-0 run, capped by Dwayne Anderson's 3-pointer at the buzzer, to trail 28-27 at halftime.

Stokes came off the bench to match his career-high with 18 points for 'Nova. He was 4-of-8 from 3-point range.

Greene led the Orange with 17 points, and fellow freshman Jonny Flynn finished with 16 points.

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