(Published in Daily News, March 23, 1985)
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Admit it. Eddie Pinckney has not always received the credit he deserved during his marvelous career at Villanova.
It is tough to seize center stage in the Big East when you play in the same league as Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin. But, the talented 6-9 senior center has put the Wildcats in a rare position to reach the NCAA Final Four.
Pinckney scored 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds here last night to lift Villanova (22-10) to the Southeast Regional finals with a 46-43 victory over Maryland.
The Wildcats - who reached the Final Eight for the third time in the last four years - will play the University of North Carolina (27-8) tomorrow in a 2 p.m. game at Birmingham Civic Center for the right to advance to Lexington, Ky. "We're not exactly the little kid on the block anymore," Villanova coach Rollie Massimino said. "We've been here before."
The Wildcats played eventual national champion North Carolina in the Eastern Regional finals in 1982 at Raleigh, N.C. They played Houston - the tournament's top seed - in the Midwest finals the following year.
Tomorrow's game with the Tar Heels - who defeated Auburn, 62-56, in the other semi - could be Villanova's best shot of reaching the Final Four since 1971, when the 'Cats played in the national championship game against UCLA.
But, it may require another superhuman effort from Pinckney, who has been a dominant force during the first three games of the tournament.
"At tournament time, he's ready," Villanova guard Gary McLain said. "He's capable and he's All America, you know. People have their own thoughts about Ed, but as coach says, and the team feels the same way, we wouldn't trade Ed for anybody. He's the man."
Pinckney has certainly been "the man" against Maryland. He savaged the Terps for a a career high 29 points and 16 rebounds earlier this year during a 77-74 loss at Cole Field House.
Maryland's All-America forward Len Bias matched Pinckney's brilliance in that nationally televised game, ripping the 'Cats for 30 points and 13 rebounds. But, Pinckney, who was matched up against Bias in the Wildcats' active matchup zone, helped shut the Terps' best player down the second time around, holding him to just one field goal - a breakaway layup - in the first half.
Bias shot just 4-for-13 and finished with just eight points, the first time after 52 consecutive games he had scored less than double figures.
"I wanted to deny him the ball and make them lob it over me," Pinckney said. "I'm about 6-9, he's 6-8 1/2, and if they did lob it over me, we wanted to have Harold Pressley on the weak side to try to steal the pass."
Pinckney had similar success last Sunday against Michigan center Roy Tarpley, holding the Big 10 MVP to just two points during a 59-55 second round victory at Dayton.
"Lenny Bias is a great player," Massimino said. "He just had an off night."
So did Maryland (25-12), which shot just 35 percent and did not score a field goal from 2:10 to play in the half until 11:40 to go in the game. Villanova took advantage of that drought to orchestrate a 15-point swing, going from a 20-15 deficit to a 32-22 lead.
"In the first half, I think we got 12 of 20 points off the fastbreak," Maryland coach Lefty Driesell said. "Second half, we didn't do that. From looking at the stat sheet, I see we shot 35 percent, they shot 36 percent. I thought we shot bad, I guess they shot just as bad. The difference was probably the rebounding."
Villanova, which also got 10 rebounds from workhorse forward Harold Pressley, outrebounded the smaller Terps, 40-32.
"That's our best rebounding effort of the season," Massimino said. "We've only been averaging 32."
Pinckney has taken the Wildcats into uncharted territory by raising the level of his own game and becoming a leader by example.
"When I watch television, I hear the announcers say, 'Patrick Ewing is raising his game to a different level, Chris Mullin's raising his game to a different level,' " Pinckney said. "So, it's kind of tough for me to make an assessment of my game. I watch the game. You know. That's Eddie. That's what I do."
Pinckney, who only had one field goal in the first half when the 'Cats only scored 19 points, freed himself up in the low post long enough to score 13 points in the second half to help the Wildcats take control.
"That was the result of an offensive set we put in a week and a half ago," Massimino said. "We wanted to isolate a little bit differently. We put Dwayne (McClain) on one side and Eddie and our shooting guard on the other side."
Pinckney powered his way inside for nine points as Villanova ran up a 43-34 lead with 6:01 to go. But, Massimino never seemed completely comfortable with the ebb and flow of this slow-motion game. Finally, after Maryland forward Adrian Branch - who scored 21 points - stuck a baseline jumper to cut the lead to seven with 5:44 to play, Massimino decided to slow the tempo even more by going to a spread.
"We've won over 95 percent of our games when we stalled at that point," Massimino claimed.
Instead of methodically putting the Terps away the way they did against Michigan, the Wildcats insisted on keeping us in suspense. Pressley, who shot a bricklayers' 3-for-12 and was just 1-for-4 from the line, missed the first part of two one-and-ones and then made just the first part of a two-shot foul as Maryland crept back within 46-42 with just 44 seconds left.
"We had a chance to fold when they went into their delay," Driesell said. "I thought our kids played with a lot of guts."
The only thing that kept the Wildcats from bleeding to death was the fact that Pinckney kept two of Pressley's misses alive with offensive rebounds.
"That killed us," Driesell said.
"I kind of sensed the guy who was trying to box me out (freshman center Derrick Lewis) was a little lackadaisical going to the boards," Pinckney said, "so I just tried to make myself assertive and tap the ball out or rebound it."
Branch made a free throw to cut the Wildcats' lead to 46-43 with 28 seconds to go and the Terps got a chance to pull to within one after guard Harold Jensen missed the front end of a one-and-one. But, sophomore lead guard Keith Gatlin threw up an air ball with nine seconds to go and time mercifully ran out.
"I thought our press was very effective," Driesell said. "I thought our press hurt them more than our halfcourt defense. I thought Villanova played hard and played well. I hope they win the national championship. I'll be pulling for them."
The 'Cats will have to shoot the ball much better from the perimeter to have a shot at the enormous Tar Heels whose front line includes four players over 6-10. Carolina has wonderful tradition, but at least the players on Dean Smith's perennial Atlantic Coast Conference power seem human to Pinckney.
"I definitely didn't want to see a Georgetown or a St. John's in our bracket," he said. "We're happy with the draw we got."
Massimino, who has never been to the Final Four, is willing to gamble that combat veterans like Pinckney can unlock the door that leads to the promised land.
"The last three weeks, he's been super," Massimino said. "The whole year has been great, but now he's starting to say, 'Hey, it could be my last game.' "