PART 1: VILLANOVA PLAYED TEMPLE, GEORGETOWN, SIENA … AND REDLANDS?

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Villanova University basketball coach Jay Wright seemed perfectly content to discuss why the Wildcats were playing at Redlands – a major college program with full-ride scholarships against a small-college team that isn’t allowed to offer athletic scholarships.

As open-minded as anyone, Wright spoke openly and honestly about the Wildcats’ trip to Redlands.

Jay Wright
Villanova University coach Jay Wright brought his Wildcats to small University of Redlands in Nov. 2003 to clear his team for the Maui Tournament (Photo by Wikipedia Commons.)

Philadelphia-based Villanova, ranked No. 3 on this date – Feb. 20, 2018 – might be an interesting topic for A Redlands Connection. Back in November 2003, the Wildcats showed up to play a 10 a.m. matchup at Currier Gymnasium.

That was the home court of the University of Redlands.

In a rare duel between a major-college, scholarship-backed program against a small-college, non-scholarship team, Villanova beat the Bulldogs in that Saturday morning match-up. That game had since taken on additional significance. Four of the Wildcats’ current starting five – seeded third in the 2005 NCAA Tournament – played prominent roles in that game at Currier Gymnasium.

The Wildcats, No. 1 seed in that year’s Minneapolis Region, seemingly had a strong shot at a national championship. For a Redlands-Villanova game to have taken place was an unlikely scenario.

“It was,” said Bulldog senior Carson Sofro, then a sophomore, “the craziest, most memorable time I’ve ever had in basketball.”

“That was my first college game,” said Amir Mazarei, who scored 15 against Villanova, third highest among the Bulldogs. “I didn’t know what to expect going in.”

“I’ve played in a few big games,” said Bulldog player Donald Brady, “and I’ve been to The (Anaheim) Pond (site of high school’s championship games). But nothing compared to playing Villanova.”

Adding to the flavor was major media coverage – TV, radio and large daily newspapers.

“We brought eight kids,” said Wright. “Five were on scholarship. The other three were walk-ons (non-scholarship players).”

At Redlands, every Bulldog player is a “walk-on.” There are no scholarships.

Yes, it was a game completely out of the ordinary, a middle-of-the-road small college team taking on a powerful presence in college basketball.

For visiting Villanova, it was a glance at small college basketball. Mazerai himself noted that Redlands plays in a 1,100-seat gymnasium – “nowhere close” to the 10,000-plus seat arenas that normally house Wildcat games.

For Redlands, it was a chance to rub elbows against a major college, Big East Conference program.

“They needed to dial up a win,” said Bulldogs’ longtime coach Gary Smith. “Originally, they were going to play Claremont (one of Redlands’ conference rivals) on Friday and then us the next day. But Temple was on their schedule and they forced Villanova to play that game. Claremont got aced out of a chance to play them.”

The game had come about due to a strange set of circumstances. Some Villanova players had unauthorized use of a telephone, making calls that were deemed “extra benefits” by an NCAA ruling. Sanctions were imposed. Some players had been suspended for six games. The school chose to take those suspensions over a six-game stretch – the final three of 2002-2003 and the first three games to start 2003-2004.

Wright spoke to me as if we were old friends – charming, personable, honest, you name it. If there’d been classes for dealing with the media, he probably got an A-plus.

“They had asked us to bring a representative team to Maui,” said Wright. “A lot of our alumni and boosters had bought tickets to that. It was up to us to field a decent team.

“All because of the phone issue.”

In order to carry its full roster in Maui, Villanova needed to get rid of that six-game sanction and clear its players.

When Villanova’s undermanned roster blasted Temple in a late Thursday night game back east, it seemed as if Redlands might be in for a worse beating early on Saturday.

Gary Smith (Photo by NorCal WIldcats)
Former University of Redlands basketball coach Gary Smith — wearing a Wildcats’ T-shirt — led his Bulldogs up against powerhouse Villanova at Currier Gymnasium in Nov. 2003. Redlands lost, but it wasn’t an easy win for the eventual NCAA champions. (Photo courtesy of the NorCal Wildcats.)

“A Big East team, of all things,” said Smith. “For them to be (competitive) in the game (against Temple), I think, was just amazing.”

Smith, said Sofro, “had warned us we could blown out of the gym.”

They played at Currier Gymnasium on Nov. 22, 2003. It was, said Smith, “the first time we’d ever played a D-1 (Division 1) school in our gym.”

Fifteen years after that, Villanova’s still the only D-1 team to show up and play Redlands.

Part 2 tomorrow … Villanova’s short team beat full-rostered Redlands.

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