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March 27, 2006

Wildcats proud of season despite Elite Eight loss

PHILADELPHIA - Allan Ray and Randy Foye led Villanova to a Big East co-championship and a return to national prominence, bringing Philly's basketball epicenter back to the Main Line.

The senior guards did everything except lead the Wildcats to the national championship.

Villanova's run through the NCAA tournament fell one win shy of the Final Four after a loss to Florida in the Minneapolis Regional on Sunday, ending one of the program's greatest seasons.

''I know it hurts for everybody, but I really want to make sure this group feels great about itself,'' coach Jay Wright said. ''They love Villanova, they love that experience, and Villanova loves them.''

The Wildcats (28-5) made it to the regional final with Curtis Sumpter lost to a preseason knee injury that forced a unique four-guard offense that carried the team until the end. Perhaps worn down from carrying the scoring load, running an attacking defense and tournament teams with a frontcourt size advantage, Ray, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry struggled in their final games.

''It hurts to know that we are not going to be able to play next week in the Final Four,'' Foye said.

With Ray and Foye gone, Villanova's four-guard offense will probably go with them.

Sumpter will be back, though, along with starters Nardi, Lowry and Will Sheridan, and seasoned sophomores Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark. They will form a nucleus that gives the Wildcats hope of another deep postseason run.

Villanova didn't want to think about next year after its 75-62 loss to Florida. This was a team that was built to win this season, and it did, winning more games than any Villanova team in history. The Wildcats spent every week ranked in the top 10 and earned their first No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.

After years of off-court difficulty and injuries that derailed the program's growth, this senior class finally lifted the program out of its early decade tournament drought with consecutive seasons in the round of 16.

''I think that we accomplished a lot in our four-year career here,'' Foye said. ''At the beginning it was a struggle, but these last two years for the senior class and the junior class, (what) they went through with us has been great.''

The Wildcats had two 10-game winning streaks for the first time in school history and knocked off No. 1 Connecticut at the Wachovia Center. Foye was named Monday to the All-America team. Ray was on the third team. Wright also earned a long-term contract extension.

''If you look back at the year we had, we can't be disappointed,'' Ray said. ''We had a great year. We did a lot of good things.''

Still, the Wildcats can be added to the growing list of Philadelphia championship misses the last few seasons. The Eagles. Smarty Jones. Saint Joseph's. All of them came so close to turning long-suffering Philadelphia into Title Town, only to fold when the stakes were raised.

This was also the eighth time since Rollie Massimino's Wildcats shocked Georgetown for the title in 1985 that a Big 5 school has lost in a regional final. John Chaney and Temple did it five times, the Hawks in 2004, and the Wildcats also lost in 1988.

Still, the Wildcats feel the loss didn't diminish anything they accomplished.

''I really feel so good about this season,'' Wright said. ''It's not even not going to the Final Four, we just wanted to keep advancing, keep being together, keep playing together.''

Foye and Ray played together for the last time Sunday. They were both in tears as they consoled each other at the end of the loss, linked one final time.

Foye, a projected lottery pick, finished with a team-best 20.5 points and was second with 5.8 rebounds. Ray led the Wildcats in 3-pointers, averaged 18.5 points and never missed a game after a gruesome eye injury in the Big East tournament.

Though the duo is gone, their legacy is secure after leading the Wildcats to their best postseason finish since 1988.

''I just told Coach Wright, 'Thanks for the ride, thanks for pushing me these four years, for me being the man that I am today,''' Foye said. ''He just told me just keep my head up and keep working hard, and he would always be there for me.''

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