Slow and deliberate, Nova defeats Irish
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- With 25 seconds left in the opening half of Saturday's game against Notre Dame, Villanova found itself in possession of the ball after a Fighting Irish basket. Also in possession of a 10-point lead on the nation's ninth-ranked team at the time, Wildcats coach Harry Perretta was in no hurry to rush through the remaining ticks of the clock.
As point guard Siobhan O'Connor waited with the ball a few feet away, Perretta held one arm outstretched toward her like a traffic cop while keeping his eyes locked on the clock.
"Hold the ball," commanded Perretta, stretching out the verb and sounding suspiciously like Mel Gibson's William Wallace urging his Scots to hold their line in the face of English heavy cavalry, albeit with a pronounced Philadelphia accent. "Hold the ball."
Perretta eventually called timeout with 10 seconds left, and even though the ensuing final possession didn't produce any points, the entire sequence underscored exactly how the coach and his team went about constructing a 55-48 upset against the Fighting Irish.
"Obviously, going into the game, we knew we could not win unless it was low scoring," Perretta said. "So that was our whole goal in the game was to try and keep the game at a slow pace and try to stop them from getting a lot of possessions."
In his picture in Villanova's media guide, Perretta's mouth sits open in apparent midsentence, as if even the camera shutter couldn't find a moment in time when the coach wasn't directing traffic. Even if the action on the basketball court doesn't always move quickly when his team is involved, few coaches get more of a workout during games than the maestro of the half-court set.
And in truth, it's not entirely accurate to say Villanova slows down the game (all right, other than the occasional instance when the point guard posts up her defender at half court to kill time and nobody else moves). It's just that while other teams view the court as a north-south proposition, Perretta looks at things from an east-west perspective.
One of my favorite series of books growing up was Michael Bond's classics featuring the marmalade-addicted Paddington the Bear. In one story, Paddington confounded a quiz show host who asked a math question that involved the length of an 8-foot-long board after it had been cut in half a number of times. Paddington insisted that the board would still be 8 feet long after making the cuts.
You see, he cut his boards lengthwise.
"If you're a bear, it's safer to cut down the middle," he explained.
So it goes for Perretta. When you're coaching Villanova, it's safer to expend energy side to side or back and forth in half-court sets -- even if the energy only adds up to 55 points.
It also helps to have a player like Laura Kurz to finish possessions. The local product from Lower Gwynedd, who spent two seasons at Duke before she transferred to Villanova after the 2005-06 season, paced the Wildcats with 16 points, even though both she and Perretta said it wasn't a game in which she was in any kind of shooting zone offensively.
Villanova's style makes it tough for any player to pile up eye-popping individual numbers, and the Wildcats still have a lot of work to do if they're to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2003-04 season. But Kurz deserves serious consideration for at least second-team all-conference honors in the Big East (it's going to be tough for anyone to dislodge Maya Moore, Renee Montgomery, Angel McCoughtry, Epiphanny Prince and Shavonte Zellous from the first team).
A 6-foot-2 forward who is comfortable in the post, spotting up on the perimeter or blowing by slower frontcourt defenders off the dribble, Kurz averages 17.9 points per game on a team averaging 57.1.
"She's our best offensive player," Perretta said. "And we want to get her the ball in crucial situations. She was not playing really well offensively in the second half, but she always has the ability to make a basket when we needed it. We're always looking to give her the ball. That's the goal, is always to try and find Laura."
Kurz is also an English major and an incredibly good sport . After I wasted a couple of timeouts thinking about Paddington, she didn't blink when asked after the game if there was an author or a book she could compare to the experience of learning Perretta's system. Was there something that was a tough slog to get through but well worth the effort in the end?
As it turns out, while looking for a book outside of her classroom requirements, Kurz picked up Jodi Picoult's "My Sister's Keeper," a novel about the potential ethical quandaries of genetic experimentation.
Beach reading it is not, but getting through it had certain parallels for a player who was far more familiar with up-tempo systems in both high school and with Duke when she arrived at Villanova.
"I hated it, the entire book," Kurz said. "And by the end of the book, I really understood it and I really appreciated the book. And I guess I can relate that [to learning Perretta's system]."
I remember watching Kurz survey the horde of reporters trudging through Duke's locker room at the Final Four in Boston three seasons ago. As an end-of-the-rotation player for a loaded Blue Devils team, she wasn't one of the players staring down a dozen outstretched recorders. But as she took advantage of her space and munched on some pizza, she had an amused look on her face as the spectacle unfolded around her. And even if she admits she wonders what it would have been like to spend all four seasons playing for Perretta, she appreciates the experiences unique to her career.
"Everything panned out for me well," Kurz said. "I had a good experience at Duke. I learned a lot about myself as a person and as a basketball player, and I met a lot of great people. I don't think I would be the player I am today if I had been here all four years.
"There was a lot of stuff about the Duke program that I appreciated and I've taken with me and I think have made me a better player. But obviously it would have been nice to be coached by Harry for four years."
And as Saturday's win demonstrated, sometimes good stories take a little effort to appreciate.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.