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February 23, 2006

Villanova slips by tough Cincinnati



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Box score

CINCINNATI Randy Foye had 25 points and Dante Cunningham scored off an inbounds play with 3.2 seconds left, leading No. 2 Villanova to its 11th straight win Thursday night, 74-72 over Cincinnati .

The Wildcats (22-2, 12-1) wasted a 12-point lead down the stretch before pulling out a win that kept them in control of the Big East.

Playing with a No. 2 ranking for the first time in 10 years, Villanova also extended a few notable streaks. The Wildcats matched the best start in school history - they also did it in 1937-38 - and set a school record with their 11th straight win in the Big East.

They had to fight off the temptation to look past this one. The Wildcats go to Connecticut on Sunday for a rematch with the third-ranked Huskies, the team they beat on Feb. 13 to take control of the Big East.

Their rematch shapes up as a game to decide the regular-season title.

On the other side, this one meant a lot to Cincinnati (18-10, 7-7), which went into a nosedive after forward Armein Kirkland tore a knee ligament on Jan. 9. Four wins in the last six games put the Bearcats back in the running for an NCAA tournament berth.

A victory over Villanova - the highest-ranked opponent to play in Cincinnati's 17-year-old arena - would have underscored their worthiness.

With a late 16-4 run led by power forward Eric Hicks, the Bearcats showed they had enough to keep up, not quite enough to pull it out.

Hicks, playing on two sprained ankles, made a pair of free throws and a putback that gave Cincinnati its first lead since the opening minutes, 72-70. Foye's free throws tied it with 53.9 seconds left, and Cincinnati freshman point guard Devan Downey was called for a charge.

On an inbounds play under the basket, Cunningham broke free and made an uncontested layup from the right side for only his second basket of the game. Hicks' 3-pointer at the buzzer was too hard.

Allan Ray added 19 points for Villanova. Hicks led Cincinnati with 21 points.

For most of the game, it didn't figure to be so close. At the outset, the Bearcats struggled under the pressure - some self-imposed, most of it from Villanova's energetic, four-guard lineup. Cincinnati made only three baskets in the first 12 minutes, going 3-for-17 from the field while Villanova pulled ahead by 11 points.

Foye and Ray had 13 apiece in the first half, which ended with Villanova up 40-34.

Cincinnati started taking advantage of Villanova's defense by hitting pull-up jumpers in the second half. Muhammad's floater cut it to 40-36 at the outset.

Ray's fall-away 3-pointer - his back hit the floor as the ball met the net - blunted the comeback and set up a back-and-forth pace that held until midway through the half.

Foye made a three-point play and a 17-foot jumper that helped Villanova pull ahead 66-54 midway through the half. Forward James White, Cincinnati's top scorer and defender, picked up his fourth foul on Foye's three-point play, leaving the Bearcats in deep trouble.

Down, but not yet out.

Hicks' three-point play sparked an 11-0 run that cut it to 68-67. Moore's 3-pointer from the right corner made it a one-point game with 4:07 left.

Both teams lost key players to fouls - Cincinnati's White and 6-foot-8 forward Will Sheridan, the only big man in Villanova's lineup. With Sheridan gone, Hicks asserted himself and brought the Bearcats the rest of the way back.

With the Bearcats' makeshift lineup staying close in the second half, fans stood and cheered ``Hire Andy!'' during a second-half timeout. Interim coach Andy Kennedy has held the Bearcats together throughout a chaotic season that started with Bob Huggins' ouster in August.

For more coverage of the Cincinnati Bearcats, check out BearcatLair.com.
For more coverage of the Villanova Wildcats, check out VUSports.com.


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