Tuesday , Mar , 07 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

The Main Line’s mission to March

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) – Not many of the 10,300 total students
at Villanova remember forward Ed Pinckney. They were in diapers or an
apple in their parents’ eye when the eighth-seeded Wildcats made 22-of-28
field goal attempts to shock defending national champion Georgetown in the
1985 title game.

Twenty-one years later, the largest Catholic university in the Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania continues to be shaped by its religious heritage and breathtaking
campus. St. Thomas of Villanova Church reflects the school’s Catholic
identity. Outdoor cramming in Kennedy Plaza signifies the beginning of Spring.
The “Oreo” is the student’s universal meeting place. The Grotto welcomes in-
coming freshman to the best four years of their lives.

An 18-year-old heads to college to grow as an individual, create life-long
friendships and prepare for the ever-changing world ahead. They also travel
sometimes thousands of miles away from the safety and security of home in
search of a story.

Students in Austin understand. Undergraduates in Chapel Hill celebrated last
April on Franklin Street. Seniors along the Southern California coast know the
feeling. College just isn’t complete without a championship. Michigan alumni
still recall Chris Webber’s timeout. The Longhorn student body still relishes
in Vince Young’s solo act of heroism.

A championship defeat scars. It effects test-taking skills and the ability to
enjoy Friday night’s toga party.

A title is sacred. College athletics are the only in sports where the fans
truly can claim part of the prize. They go to class with the team. They party
with the team. Some individuals even date members of the team.

That is why this season is so special. Villanova is so close. And while it is
important to discuss strategy with head coach Jay Wright and dissect Allan
Ray’s jump shot, it is even more important to delve in-depth into the pulse of
a campus.

The story has a beginning and a middle with the hope of a fairy-tale end. The
title has been etched in passion from the season’s opening tip: The Main
Line’s Mission to March.

It all started when Villanova, untested and undefeated, walked into a sold-out
Pavilion on December 3rd for a non-conference bout with the methodical,
physical Oklahoma Sooners led by the frontcourt duo of Kevin Bookout and Taj
Gray. Philadelphia’s version of Cameron Indoor Stadium shook. The Wildcats
received 10 major points from Jason Fraser and took home a convincing 85-74

After the game, while Wright mentioned the effort of Fraser and big-game
ability of Ray and Randy Foye, he couldn’t stop singing the praises of the
atmosphere created by the student body.

“This is as good a college basketball atmosphere as you are going to find in
the country. It starts with the students and this is a very difficult place to
play. Our guys love to play here and we feel like we have an advantage in
here. It’s hot, there are people on top of you and they’re loud,” said Wright.
“It’s just a great place to play college basketball. I’ve always thought its
one of the best. I don’t know if there’s anywhere in the country with a wall
of human beings like that behind one basket that can create that noise. We
love it.”

Many miles to the north in Killington, Vermont, a group of Villanova students
demonstrated that the passion does not die outside the city’s limits.

“We were in our hotel watching the game, and even though we were 400 miles
from home, we were so into it,” junior Chris Saveri said. “It felt like our
own student section.”

In-between skiing and snowboarding, the Wildcat faithful still had time for
hoops. Instead of hitting the slopes, they watched their classmates hit the
boards and win the first big test of the season.

The Wildcats continued to win — including a trap game at Bucknell, three
straight Big Five contests and a national-television bout at Louisville —
before suffering their first loss of the season against West Virginia.

Even after a second loss in three games at Texas, the team and its fans were
still confident.

After the setback in Austin, Villanova won eight straight games to set up the
much-anticipated clash with top-ranked Connecticut. The hype leading up to the
contest was one that students live for.

The festivities started well before the 7 p.m. (et) tip-off, as the parking
lots flooded with fans several hours in advance.

“We tailgated for four hours before the game, and stayed in the lot for
another hour afterward. The atmosphere that day for that game was a once in a
lifetime experience,” said Saveri.

United they stood, making their way into the Wachovia Center for an
unforgettable evening.

“It’s nice to see how united all the Villanova fans can be,” said junior
Emilie Galligan. “Between the tailgating and the cheering, I hope the
basketball team knows it has major support on this campus.”

If the team didn’t know before, it found out on that February 13th evening. A
crowd of 20,859, the largest to watch a college basketball game in Keystone
State history, filled the arena to witness the Wildcats’ official entrance on
the national stage.

Beating the talented, balanced Huskies seemed too daunting a task after a 13-0
sprint to start the second half gave UConn a 45-33 lead. However, Ray started
finding his stroke and the comeback was complete after Mike Nardi — who had
missed the previous two games with tonsillitis — drained a three from the
right wing to send the crowd into a frenzy.

“Nothing compared to Nardis three-pointer that gave us the lead,” chimed
Saveri. “I have never heard a sports arena so loud in my life.”

The celebration was even louder.

When the final horn sounded, capping Villanova’s first victory over a top-
ranked squad since beating UConn on February 18, 1995, the Wachovia Center’s
floodgates opened. Students hugged students. Players embraced players.
Sorority girls made a mad dash to share a moment with Wright.

“It’s at the basketball games where I have some of my most unforgettable
memories,” said junior Mike Mainardi. “None is more memorable then storming
the court after the UConn game.”

Another memory reflects on the Wildcats’ team-first philosophy. With the
club’s February 23rd game at Cincinnati tied at 72-72 in the closing seconds,
the ball went inside to Dante Cunningham, the lanky freshman forward who
averages 2.2 points per game. Cunningham delivered with the game-winning
layup, a moment that sticks in junior Jane Chalet’s mind.

“This year’s team is all about working together and winning games through
teamwork, which is what makes us so unique and so strong,” said Chalet.
“Cunningham’s layup was just an example of that.”

The story is not complete.

Nothing would be more special than a repeat of 21 years ago, when Villanova’s
Cinderella ride never struck midnight. Now, Pinckney is an assistant coach on
the Wildcats’ staff and every student will surely remember him if he climbs
that ladder on the first Monday in April to help cut down the nets.

A line from Saveri would fittingly close the final championship chapter.

“It will stick with us for the rest of our lives.”