• 54°

NCAA Tournament: Cunningham a catalyst for Duke’s next opponent

By Dan Gelston
Associated PressVILLANOVA, Pa. ó Dante Cunningham had to dust off the history books to find something appealing about Villanova.
Three Final Four appearances, including a national title in 1985, look nifty on banners hanging from the rafters. For today’s players born after Rollie Massimino coached the Wildcats to their only NCAA championship, the 1980s may as well as have been ancient history.
“Villanova was a big-time school way before my time,” Cunningham said Monday.
Now? Well, Cunningham believes the Wildcats are back as one of the elite teams in basketball. Go ahead and put Villanova up there with UCLA, Duke, North Carolina or any other household power and Cunningham likes how the Wildcats compare.
Villanova (28-7) is in the round of 16 for the fourth time in five years, an achievement only Memphis and UNC can boast. Of course, the Tar Heels have a national championship, and Memphis has played in the title game during that span while the Wildcats have yet to reach the Final Four.
The Wildcats are definitely back on the map as title contenders, and Cunningham is a pivotal reason why Villanova is playing against Duke (30-6) in an East Regional semifinal Thursday in Boston.
The tentative, jittery freshman who deferred to NBA-bound guards like Randy Foye and Allan Ray has morphed into Villanova’s go-to scorer in the post. He leads the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding, he and gives them the physical toughness inside that helped them rough up American and UCLA ó especially the Bruins ó in their first two tourney wins.
Cunningham, a second-team All-Big East pick, has worked his way into Villanova’s only senior NBA prospect.
“As the years went on, things change,” Cunningham said. “Developing as a player myself, understanding what the team needed to win more games, I just had to become more of an offensive threat. Honestly, I think it wasn’t too hard just because I put in the time, I put in the time off the court working on my individual game. So when the time came for me to step up as an offensive player, it really wasn’t that hard.”
Cunningham was named the Big East’s most improved player, pumping up his scoring average from 10.4 points as a junior to 16.3 this season. He scored 25 and 18 points in the first two tournament games and grabbed a total of 17 rebounds.
Wildcats coach Jay Wright hoped Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 forward, would have become a legitimate scoring threat earlier in his career. Cunningham showed flashes of becoming one as a sophomore when he posted four straight double-digit scoring games, only to disappear offensively for stretches while the guard-oriented offense carried the load. Even last season, his game log was littered with single-digit scoring games though his rebounding remained strong.
“He would always give the ball up,” Wright said. “Even halfway through his junior year, he’d give the ball up in big situations, not out of fear, just out of respect for Scottie (Reynolds) and Dwayne (Anderson) and the other guys.
“Finally toward the end of his junior year, he really started to take pride in being a go-to guy. He came in this year from Day 1, you could tell. ‘This is my team, I’m going to make the plays at the end.’ ”
No Wildcats player is doubting this is Cunningham’s team now. He’s part of the winningest senior class in school history, with the total at 100 victories, and wants to be remembered as leading Villanova to its first Final Four in 24 years.
“He takes pride in what the guys before him did for him, and he’s trying to leave the same legacy,” Reynolds said. “He’s trying to leave his mark on Villanova basketball.”
Cunningham has failed to reach double-digit scoring in only three games. Perhaps not coincidentally, Villanova lost two of those. He had two games of 31 points and 12 rebounds. The only thing Cunningham is looking to pass these days is the credit for his success onto his teammates.
“The team has been behind me the whole time,” he said. “The confidence that they have in me to put the ball in my hands makes it even easier.”
The Maryland native considered the Terrapins and Georgetown before settling on Wildcats even at a time when Villanova “wasn’t the school to go to.”
Wright sold Cunningham on the Villanova family and the former greats he was bringing back into the fold. It was a family Cunningham couldn’t wait to join.
Wright had the Wildcats on the cusp of a breakthrough when he got them back into the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years in 2005. Now the Sweet 16 has become a habit, and it’s one Cunningham isn’t willing to quit.
“We like what we’re doing and where we’re going,” he said, “and we want to keep it up.”

Comments

Comments closed.

Local

Dukeville lead testing results trickle in, more participation needed

Education

Faith Academy interviewing staff, preparing site for fall opening

News

Volunteers work around obstacles, alter procedures to offer free tax services to those in need

Education

Education shoutouts

Local

Retired Marine gets recognition for toy collection efforts

Local

March issue of Salisbury the Magazine is now available

Education

Five get Dunbar School Heritage Scholarships

Education

Education briefs: Salisbury Academy fourth-graders think big as inventors

Education

Bakari Sellers keynote speaker at Livingstone College Founder’s Day program

Nation/World

Biden aims to distribute masks to millions in ‘equity’ push

Nation/World

Chief: Capitol Police were warned of violence before riot

Nation/World

GOP rallies solidly against Democrats’ virus relief package

Nation/World

FDA says single-dose shot from Johnson & Johnson prevents severe COVID

High School

Coaches, lawmakers react to governor’s order expanding sporting event capacity

Coronavirus

Three new COVID-19 deaths, positives remain below triple digits

BREAKING NEWS

Gov. Cooper announces end to curfew, changes to restrictions affecting bars, high school sports

Crime

Blotter: Two charged after call about package

Crime

Salisbury Police investigating two shootings

Crime

Chase involving Kernersville man ends in woods behind Carson High School

News Main

North Rowan girls end season with playoff loss to Murphy

Education

Rowan-Salisbury EC department plunges in place after raising $1,300 for Special Olympics

Nation/World

Tiger Woods injured in car crash, has surgery on legs

Local

Local stakeholders set goals, direction to tackle city’s housing issues

Education

RSS board talks future of Henderson Independent School