Wright hasn’t forgotten critical call from 2005 adding to legacy
By Dan Gelston
VILLANOVA, Pa. ó Jay Wright’s biggest upset of the NCAA tournament came on the pregame officials list, not on the court.
There for Villanova’s regional final game against Pittsburgh was the name of the man who tormented him the last time the Wildcats played North Carolina in the tourney.
No, Rashad McCants or Raymond Felton were not wearing uniforms.
It was lead official Tom O’Neill who made the usually collected coach feel a bit jittery.
“I admit, I was scared,” Wright said Monday. “I was shocked when I saw that. We said hello to each other. During the game we didn’t get into anything. I purposely tried to stay away.”
Villanova fans haven’t forgotten O’Neill’s whistle and the controversial traveling call on Allan Ray in the final seconds of a regional semifinal loss to North Carolina in 2005.
Ray sank the basket and, for a few fateful seconds, thought he was going to the free-throw line with a chance to tie the game. Instead, the bucket was erased and the Tar Heels took advantage of the call to escape with a 67-66 win.
“That’s going to be a theme,” Wright said. “I guess a lot of fans are going to be remembering that.”
UNC coach Roy Williams led the Tar Heels to the national championship that season.
The Wildcats? Well, they’re still waiting for their next national title. But 2005 was Villanova’s first tournament appearance in six seasons. Each tournament since has been a big step ó no whistle included ó toward their first Final Four since 1985.
Standing in the Wildcats’ way is, yup, North Carolina.
Wright said he’s been texting with Ray and other members of the ’05 team, though the ex-‘Cats are more interested in the outcome of Saturday’s semifinal than in reminiscing over an official’s call.
“Maybe we’ll use that this week,” Wright said, laughing. “But their point is how proud they are. These were their young guys.”
Wright said O’Neill called a good game in Villanova’s 78-76 victory over Pittsburgh in the East Regional final. Wright, though, knows the Wildcats shouldn’t use what happened in 2005 or need to create other motivation at the Final Four.
The Wildcats (30-7) already have knocked off two elite programs in UCLA and Duke, then survived the Big East battle with Pitt.
“We faced a lot of good teams in our conference, and we faced a lot of good teams in the tournament so far,” guard Reggie Redding said. “UNC is a great team, though, so it’s going to be our toughest game so far.”
North Carolina (32-4) reaching the Final Four is about as routine on the April sports calendar as baseball’s opening day and the Masters. The Tar Heels are in their 18th Final Four and second straight under Williams. Villanova is only in its fourth.
The Tar Heels are loaded with future NBA talent in Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Philadelphia native Wayne Ellington. Hansbrough was named Monday to the The Associated Press’ All-America team, and Lawson was on the second team.
“Everybody from that team came back from one reason, and that was to win a national championship,” Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds said. “They don’t want to stop at Villanova. They want to continue on.”
The Wildcats can’t even boast an all-Big East first-teamer. The talent gap may appear to be substantial, but Wright likes his chances even if the oddsmakers favor North Carolina. Reynolds and Dante Cunningham carry the scoring load, but it’s Redding, Shane Clark, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Dwayne Anderson that give the Wildcats the needed depth, scoring and dirty work necessary to wear down the Heels.
“I hope that we have more weapons and we’re harder to guard,” Wright said. “I don’t know if that’s realistic. But if all eight of our guys, including Antonio Pena, are playing like Shane did and Reggie did, it makes us as dangerous as them. They usually have six or seven guys doing that, so if we can get eight, it will be an edge.”
Wright may not need to reach back four years for motivation. Only one.
The Wildcats fell behind early and were toyed with all game in a regional semifinal loss to Kansas. For the third time in four years, Villanova was eliminated by the eventual national champs.
Wright gathered the Wildcats in the locker room and told them how much he wanted them all to remember the loss. He wanted them to know that if they ever wanted to raise the national championship banner, they couldn’t take possessions off or expect to overcome sloppy play.
Wright hammered home his point by playing footage of the 15-point loss at various times of the season in the film room at Villanova’s practice facility.
His message rubbed off.
“I didn’t plan it would get us here, but I was hoping it would just constantly show them how good you have to be to be at this level,” Wright said. “Maybe you can win a game against a middle-of-the-pack Big East team, but if you want to be that good, this is how good you have to be.”
Now the Wildcats are almost that good.
The rest will be determined in Detroit.
“We’re going there to win a championship,” Reynolds said, “and that’s what we plan to do.”