'Cats' purrfect tale?

(Published in Daily News, April 1, 1985)

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Perhaps Villanova coach Rollie Massimino should call Jim Valvano for some final instructions on how to play Cinderella before the Wildcats meet Georgetown tonight for the NCAA championship at Rupp Arena.

Two years ago Valvano coached North Carolina State into the national final. But no one gave Valvano's team much of a chance against Houston, which was propelled by a high-flying fraternity called Phi Slama Jama.

But the Wolfpack confounded the experts the next night and stunned Houston, 54-52, on Lorenzo Charles's right-place, right-time dunk of an air ball at the buzzer.

"I guess you probably could draw a parallel," Massimino said yesterday. "But they weren't playing Georgetown."

Massimino meant no disrespect to Houston. He was only expressing his admiration for what coach John Thompson's defending national champions (35-2) have accomplished so far this year.

"We're going to have to play a perfect game," said Massimino, whose team will begin that mission at 9:12 p.m. "We know they're the No. 1 team in the United States, one of the best teams ever assembled in the history of college basketball.

"One thing we have in our favor is that we've seen them play an awful lot during the year. They're in our conference and we've played them twice. We have a little better feel for what they do."

Georgetown showed what it is capable of Saturday when it dominated Big East Conference rival St. John's, 77-59, in one semifinal after Villanova edged Memphis State, 52-45, in the other.

"I have a pretty good experience in analyzing them (the Hoyas)," St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca said afterward. "I have to put them with the great San Francisco teams - Bill Russell and K.C. Jones.

"I'd have to put them with the great Kentucky teams - Alex Groza and that group; or, Mike Phillips, Kyle Macy and that crowd. I'd have to put them with the great UCLA teams, the great Indiana team that sent five guys to the pros."

Georgetown, with its All-America center, Patrick Ewing, is an unforgettable team. Ewing, the seven-foot senior who Massimino called "probably the best player I've ever seen play the game of basketball," has led Georgetown to the national final three times during his illustrious career.

It will be up to the Wildcats (24-10) to ruin his swan song and prevent Georgetown from becoming the first team since the 1973 UCLA Bruins to repeat as national champion.

An impossible mission?

"I'm sure John Thompson feels pretty good about playing us, since he's beaten us twice," Massimino said. "But when you get to a game like this, anything can happen. We were up at seven this morning, watching films. We watched yesterday's game and what they've done and they're as awesome as can be. They probably played as well Saturday as they played all year. They played with reckless abandon. They played hard. John (Thompson) does a great, great job with his team.

"We'll do what we think we have to do to win the game. It might not be enough, but I think we have a very good opportunity."

Villanova never has won a national basketball championship. Nonetheless, it has the luxury of entering the title game with a nothing-to-lose attitude. The Wildcats already are heroes in Philadelphia. The city is talking about a celebration at the Spectrum, win or lose, and Villanova's president, the Rev. John M. Driscoll, already has given the students the day off Wednesday for a celebration.

They might need off longer than that if the Wildcats pull off a miracle finish tonight. They already have indicated that they can play with the Hoyas. They lost, 52-50, in overtime at the Spectrum Jan. 12, and 57-50 at Landover, Md., Feb. 11.

Villanova had the early lead in both of those games but wilted under the stifling pressure of the Hoyas' defense.

"We played both of those games with a 45-second clock," Massimino said. "Three times down the stretch in the first game we had to shoot the ball because of the clock. Gary McLain had to shoot one time and so did Dwight Wilbur."

With the shot clock turned off in the tournament, the Wildcats have come to life, controlling tempo and running the spread offense effectively enough to knock off three Top 10 teams - Michigan, North Carolina and Memphis State - on the way to this cherished position.

Villanova's success with the spread offense has led some to speculate that Massimino might consider holding the ball from the beginning.

"We don't intentionally ever try to hold the ball," Massimino said. "We just try to get a good shot. I think there's certainly a difference between letting the air out of the ball and making an extra pass. We are not going to play any differently than we did all year long."

Villanova has been playing inspired basketball during the last three weeks.

"I think this is as good as any team we've ever had here," Massimino claimed, "because I think, down the stretch, they've played better than any team we've ever had."

The Wildcats clawed their way into the finals, using patience and the ability to get the ball inside to crumble Memphis State's monstrous front line of Keith Lee and William Bedford. They also held the Tigers to less than 40 percent shooting accuracy from the field and completely disrupted Memphis State's offensive flow with an aggressive matchup zone.

Georgetown presents more problems than any other team Villanova has played this year.

"We're going to have to play close to a perfect game because they do many things well and they have the best player in college basketball," Villanova center Ed Pinckney said. "We're going to have to be as tough as can be off the defensive boards, because they have so many offensive rebounders. They just have so many weapons they can beat you with."

Reggie Williams, the Hoyas' icy 6-6 forward, ripped St. John's for 20 points in the semifinal game. Ewing and Bill Martin each added 16 for Georgetown, which shot 29-for-57.

Villanova has done a much better job than the Redmen of controlling the Hoyas this year. Georgetown shot just 20-for-46 (42 pecent) at the Spectrum and only 23-for-59 (39 percent) in the second meeting.

"I guess, statistically, over the years, we have won close to 90 percent of our games at Villanova when we've held people in the 60s," Massimino said. "That's an amazing statistic. When I first took this job 12 years ago and we won just seven games, people were scoring in the 90s on us. So I guess I had to make a commitment somewhere."

With Villanova, good defense is a given. It helped the Wildcats survive long stretches of offensive inactivity against Maryland in the Southeast Regional and again against Memphis State.

"We look bad, but we make the other team look worse," forward Harold Pressley said.

Villanova, which went 9 minutes, 36 seconds without a field goal against Memphis State, looked ugly at times. The 'Cats will have to be sharper against Georgetown.

"We can't turn the ball over too much against their various presses, which we've been pretty successful with this year," Massimino said. "The second thing, shoot over 50 percent or in that range. They hold people to under 40 at times."

At least Villanova does not figure to be intimidated by Georgetown. The Wildcats know all about Ewing and the way he has been able to single-handedly influence the outcome of a game with his defensive skills.

"We're not going to be in awe of him," Pinckney said.

Gary McLain promises the 'Cats will not be tentative, either.

"I think we'll be loose," he said. "We're here, ready to play our hearts out and we're going to play with 110 percent because that's the only way we know how to play.

"I think the butterflies will have left town by Monday night."