Nova Notebook Postgame: Cunningham and Clark Showed the Way Against Syracuse
Feb. 7, 2009
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - As the son of parents who served in the United States Air Force, Dante Cunningham has always appreciated the need to be a good teammate. That implacable demeanor allowed him to become Villanova's Mr. Indispensable over the course of his first three seasons as a Wildcat.
Need a first class rebounder in the wake of Curtis Sumpter's season-ending knee surgery?
Cunningham was the `Cats man. As a freshman in 2005-06, he became a critical role player as Villanova charged to the Elite Eight behind the play of its four-headed starting guard tandem of Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Mike Nardi and Allan Ray.
Need a lockdown defender to help keep the Wildcats on a course to the NCAA Tournament in 2007?
Cunningham filled the role.
Looking for a team captain who can help rally the troops in the midst of a five-game midseason losing streak?
Cunningham stepped up.
Now, as a senior, the 6-8 forward is in the process of putting together a truly memorable farewell season.
He was at it again on Saturday afternoon at the Wachovia Center. From the opening tip he was a major presence for the Wildcats and head coach Jay Wright. By day's end, Cunningham had converted 12 of 15 field goal attempts and added seven free throws to tie his career high of 31 points in Villanova's 102-85 victory over No. 20 Syracuse.
"Within the (Syracuse) zone, Coach was talking about getting in there and shooting the ball," explained Cunningham, who also collected nine rebounds. "That was what was going to be there - the shots on the baseline."
"Dante is learning how to be a confident offensive player," noted Wright. "In the past we have done that against a zone and if missed one, he wouldn't take another one. I was just happy that he just kept shooting the ball.
"That's a big part of our development against the zone. Everyone knows that's an area where you've got to get the ball. But that's a tough shot - it's not easy to make them. He makes that shot very well."
Cunningham had ample help on Saturday afternoon before a sellout crowd of 20,390.
Sophomore Corey Fisher came off the bench to help ignite Villanova's first half attack. Despite being in foul trouble for much of the day, the 6-1 guard from the Bronx, N.Y., delivered 14 points, six assists and zero turnovers in 23 minutes. Another sophomore, Corey Stokes, had his best BIG EAST offensive game of the season with 16 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Junior Scottie Reynolds had 10 points and spent much of his day coping with Syracuse's explosive point guard, Jhonny Flynn. Perhaps most encouraging to Wright, though, was the effort from another senior, Shane Clark. The 6-7 forward from Philadelphia's Cardinal Dougherty High School led the `Cats with 10 rebounds and added 14 points.
"Shane was awesome," stated Wright. "Every time we would miss a shot or it looked like we were going to slip a little bit, he would come up with a big play. He started the game that way."
Clark's season has been plagued by injury. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on the eve of the season. Though he missed only one game, it took him weeks to regain his basketball legs.
In January he injured his right ankle against Louisville. Just as he returned to practice from that injury after missing five days, he suffered a right wrist injury that relegated him to street clothes in VU's victory over St. John's on Jan. 18 at the Pavilion.
Lately, though, Clark has moved into the starting lineup and he was a major factor in the win here against the Orange.
"We have been trying not to wear him out late in the season the way it has happened the last two years," explained Wright. "We have brought him off the bench and have tried to limit his minutes. Now, it's time, it's Big East time.
"He's tremendous. Shane is such a valuable member of our team. He does every little thing we ask of him. I thought he did a really good job in the first half defensively on (Andy) Rautins. The two threes he made were not on (Clark)." For his part, Clark is only too willing to embrace the role of warrior that has so often been Cunningham's in the past.
"Every time I play I do whatever is asked of me," he stated. "I just go out there and play Villanova basketball. Whether they want me to guard the one man or the five man, I just go out there and play. I always want to be on the offensive and defensive glass. I just do whatever it takes."
It's an attitude that bonds both Cunningham and Clark and goes a long way to explaining the `Cats climb up the BIG EAST standings.