'Cats strike first in race for Big East title, No. 1 seed

PHILADELPHIA -- In the end, Villanova's guards did what they do best. They made shots, big shots, 3-point shots, shots that erase 12-point deficits in a matter of minutes, or a handful of possessions, and ultimately allow the Wildcats to keep winning games.

Perimeter shooting has been this team's hallmark for two seasons, really.

Monday night, it was Allan Ray's turn. He ripped off four 3-pointers during the second-half stretch that dissolved No. 1 Connecticut's 12-point lead and eventually sent the No. 4 Wildcats to a 69-64 victory before 20,859 at the Wachovia Center. There have been plenty of times when his fellow guards, either Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry or Mike Nardi, have had the opportunity to be the Wildcats' shooting star.

"Our guys always believe that we have confidence in our defense and always know that with our shooters we can string one [run] together," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

"Coach Wright was running plays for me and we were executing, and once I got it going I felt like I couldn't miss a shot," Ray said.

But there was an added bonus Monday that 'Nova rarely receives. Junior forward Will Sheridan hit corner jumpers and a baseline dunk and finished with 13 points, tying his career high and beating his season average by 8.5, and 10 rebounds -- points that Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said were "killers" to his Huskies.

The natural thing for any team playing Villanova is to focus on its guards, double them at every chance and leave players like Sheridan open.

"When you think about it, it's natural to double our guards because they are amazing," Sheridan said. "They are the dominant force of our offense. But when I have the open shot I take it."

Wright said Sheridan has the green light to take shots, but it's not uncommon for the center to go 25 minutes in games without attempting one.

"Based on how this team plays, they [the Huskies] were smart to double our guards on the ball screen and that's what everybody does to us," Wright said. "It hasn't hurt anybody and it didn't hurt them in the first half."

When you think about Villanova's offensive weapons, UConn's Rudy Gay said, your first thoughts are Ray, Foye, Lowry and Nardi.

"To have a guy like that [Sheridan] knock down jump shots is tough and it hurts," said Gay, who led UConn in points (19) and rebounds (10) in what was only the team's second loss of the season and first after 11 straight wins.

It does make it even more difficult to guard the Wildcats when Sheridan can contribute a legitimate share to the offense, UConn's Rashad Anderson said.

Sheridan hit a 15-foot jump shot a possession after Ray's fourth 3-pointer during what became a 22-4 second-half run that pushed the Wildcats' lead to six. He hit another jump shot after the Huskies had cut the lead to three to push 'Nova's advantage back to five, and then converted a dunk a few minutes later to hold the lead at five.

"I feel like I face this all year," said Sheridan, who has had only two double-figure scoring games this season. Monday night was his first double-double of the season.

"When I have the open shot I take it," he said. "I'm unselfish but I'm smart, too."

Sheridan is not about to take any of the spotlight away Villanova's headliners because he knows his role here. And Ray, after all, had the hot hand against UConn.

"It's definitely something we can lean back on," Sheridan said. "I can't describe what it's like [to see a teammate hit 3 after 3 like Ray did during that four-minute span in the second half]. I'm so used to it."

The victory did more than just push the Wildcats (10-1 Big East, 20-2 overall) ahead of Connecticut (9-2, 22-2) in the quest to stay with West Virginia (9-1, 18-5) in the Big East race. 'Nova had whiffed in big games against Texas and West Virginia since New Year's Day, with its signature win so far coming against Oklahoma in early December. Monday's win also puts the Wildcats in the running for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, along with Connecticut, Duke, Memphis and Texas.

The Huskies will get another shot at 'Nova in Storrs in two weeks and possibly again in the Big East tournament, although the Mountaineers could be just as formidable. And guess who UConn has next? That's right, West Virginia in Morgantown, for a second consecutive showdown of the Big East's best.

This race for the conference title, let alone a chase for a No. 1 NCAA seed is far from over. Villanova struck first by leaning on its guards, and a big man who showed he can score if given the looks.

Senior writer Andy Katz covers men's college basketball for ESPN.com.