All because of 2009.
That’s when the Wildcats kept the Panthers from playing in their first Final Four under Jamie Dixon with perhaps the greatest postseason basket in team history.
“The thing I remember is just Scottie Reynolds hitting that shot,” Wanamaker said.
Reynolds won the biggest game between the intrastate rivals on a half-court dash for a basket with 0.5 seconds left that lifted them to a 78-76 victory and their first Final Four since 1985. For the Panthers, it was another stinging postseason downer for the Big East’s most consistent regular-season team over the last 10 years.
It’s a loss the Panthers unlucky enough to play in that game can’t shake.
“That’s something that’s always going to be inside of me,” Wanamaker said. “It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forget, unless I get the chance to play them again in the Elite Eight for another chance to go the Final Four and we come out with the win.”
For this week, Wanamaker will have to settle for crushing Villanova’s fading Big East title chase.
The No. 4 Panthers (22-2, 10-1) and the Wildcats were picked to finish 1-2 in the conference preseason poll.
Only the Panthers have played up to their billing.
Pittsburgh is rolling toward its 10th straight NCAA tournament and a win Saturday night on the road at the Pavilion would give them the best start to a Big East season in team history. They hold a 1 1/2 -game lead over Notre Dame and have the No. 9 Wildcats (19-5, 7-4) needing a season sweep, they play again in Pittsburgh on March 5, and some help to jump back into the championship picture.
Winners of 12 of 13, the Panthers hardly seem poised to fold. They won at No. 25 West Virginia on Monday without leading scorer Ashton Gibbs, who is sidelined with a left knee injury.
Gibbs will sit out Saturday’s primetime game—the first time ESPN’s “GameDay” visits Villanova’s campus.
Wildcats coach Jay Wright, while enthusiastic for the exposure, has tried to downplay the hoopla surrounding the all-day event: Randy Foye, who helped lead Villanova to the round of 16 and a regional final in his final two seasons as a Wildcat, will have his No. 2 jersey retired Saturday morning as part of the festivities.
Otherwise, it’s been hard to feel festive around Villanova lately.
They had their second inexcusable loss of the season at Rutgers on Wednesday, a stunning defeat that came when Jonathan Mitchell’s four-point play with less than a second remaining gave Rutgers a 77-76 victory.
“Everybody in this conference is used to losing a close game,” Dixon said at the Peterson Events Center.
Yes, but losses at Rutgers and Providence have all but squashed any chance at a Big East championship for the Wildcats. Guard Corey Stokes, who started the season as their star shooter, has been hampered by turf toe. He sat out Thursday’s practice and is listed as day to day.
The Wildcats have beat Pitt six straight times at the Pavilion and are 9-1 against the Panthers in the last 10 games at the on-campus gym.
Wright, who grew up outside Philadelphia, is a Big East guy. He loves the passion and the tradition of the conference—and two top-10 teams playing this late in the season only adds to the belief the Big East is tops this season.
“Where we finish in the regular season speaks to how good of a team we are,” Wright said. “Not how we do in the (Big East) tournament, not how we do in the NCAA tournament.”
Dixon hasn’t dangled a conference championship as a carrot for the Panthers. He just wants to survive the week after a nasty battle against the Mountaineers in the Backyard Brawl.
“It’s not too often you go from a rivalry game to a rivalry game,” Dixon said. “But we have like six rivalry games. You’re supposed to have one rivalry game. You talk to teams in our conference and ask them who their rival is, more than two or three will say Pitt is their rival. I guess that’s a sign of respect.”
Inside the game, there’s a friendly rivalry between Wanamaker and Villanova guard Maalik Wayns. They played on the same high school team and formed a tight bond.
They’ll talk about everything—except that night in 2009.
“We feel like they stole something from us,” Wanamaker said. “Any time we play against, them it’s always going to be personal.”