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The top 10 local college basketball games of 2009

I didn't attend all of them, but I did write about all of them here on the blog. I'm sure you'll disagree with some (maybe all) of my picks, and I hope you'll share your thoughts.

Over the next few days, you're going to see all kinds of year-in-review lists here on I'm getting the ball rolling with what I think were the top 10 college basketball games of the year involving local teams.

I didn't attend all of them, but I did write about all of them here on the blog. I'm sure you'll disagree with some (maybe all) of my picks, and I hope you'll share your thoughts in the comments.

As I put this list together, a thought kept coming back to me. There are people out there - we know who they are - who claim that various places in the country represent the heart of college basketball. Some say it's Indianapolis, others Dayton, and plenty of loudmouths think it's the Tobacco Road triangle.

To me, though, none of those places measure up to Philadelphia. Our college basketball landscape covers the full breadth of the game, from the glitzy Wachovia Center to the bandbox-sized DAC.

And while it doesn't get nearly the national respect it deserves, the Palestra remains my favorite place to watch a game of any kind. Whether you're on press row or high up in the corners, there's not a bad seat in the house.

I still remember covering a game at Duke a few years back and showing some students standing near me pictures of the Palestra. They had no idea that its design was the basis for Cameron Indoor Stadium. I think about that night every time a broadcaster lays roses at the Cameron Crazies' feet.

So let's get to the list. As you'll see, this year has given us plenty of great memories. Here's hoping 2010 is just as fun.

10. January 28: Villanova 67, Pittsburgh 57

This was the last college basketball game ever played at the Spectrum, and it lived up to the billing. The air was hot, the crowd was loud, and the result was a signature win for the Wildcats.

It was a throwback game on the court as well as off it. The teams combined for 60 rebounds, nine blocked shots and 38 fouls. Reggie Redding was the difference-maker, hitting all 10 of his free throws en route to a game-high 18 points.   

9. April 3: Penn State 69, Baylor 63

Yes, Penn State's on this list. Why? Because winning the NIT put the Nittany Lions on the national map. Madison Square Garden was hit with a springtime white-out as 36 busloads of students made the trip from State College for the championship game. Even Joe Paterno came to his native New York City for the occasion.

8. March 26: Villanova 77, Duke 54

It wasn't just that the win put Villanova in the Elite Eight. Nor was it just about the name on the front of the opponents' jersey.

This was a beatdown, plain and simple. For all the accolades the Blue Devils had received coming into the game, they simply could not deal with Villanova's ferocious defense. As Joe Juliano wrote at the time:

On three straight possessions late in the half, [Villanova] forced a 35-second violation following an air ball, got a blocked shot from Reynolds on a jumper by Scheyer, and made Scheyer throw up a rushed three-ball to beat the shot-clock buzzer.
Scheyer, Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler were held to a combined 9-47 from the field. Villanova didn't shoot much better, but their defense made the difference.

7. March 6: Penn State 66, Illinois 64

Yes, the Nittany Lions are on here twice. The shot that won this game wasn't an absolute buzzer-beater, but it was pretty close. Talor Battle's layup after he dashed the length of the court hit the backboard, the front of the rim and the back of the rim before bouncing in with 0.3 seconds left on the clock.

It wasn't enough to get Penn State to the NCAA Tournament, but it was still a tremendous finish.

6. February 12: Temple 61, St. Joseph's 59

As I read back over my live blog transcript of this game, I kept moving it up the rankings.

Temple's students fired the first shot of the game, starting their chants an hour before tipoff. The great rollouts on both sides were read by a sellout crowd and a national television audience.

Temple had a 56-46 game in the final minute, and it seemed like the game was over. But it wasn't. A dunk by Ahmad Nivins made it 58-53 with 21 seconds left, and a layup by Tasheed Carr made it 59-55 with 12.9 seconds left.

Lavoy Allen missed two free throws, and fouled out of the game beating Garrett Williamson to a rebound. Williamson hit two free throws, and all of a sudden it was a two-point game.

With 4.7 seconds left, it was 60-59. Juan Fernandez made it 61-59 at the free throw line, and St. Joe's came down the floor. Tasheed Carr went for the jackpot from three-point range, but missed. Temple escaped, and swept the season series from the Hawks.

5. March 19: Villanova 80, American 67

All of the elements were there for a textbook NCAA Tournament upset. Villanova was the powerhouse, but American had some tricky guards and were in the Big Dance for the second straight year. The Wildcats were at their home-away-from-home, but the two sections of Eagles fans did their best to shout down the rest of South Philadelphia.

And for a while, their dream was alive. AU made eight of its 15 threes in the first half, while Villanova made only five of its 14 attempts and committed 11 turnovers.

But the Wildcats forced a change in momentum in the second half. After taking only nine two-point shots in the first half, the Wildcats pounded the ball inside to Dante Cunningham and clawed their way back.

American kept firing from the perimeter, but the well went dry. Villanova prevailed, and sent Cinderella back to D.C. empty-handed.

4. March 13: Temple 55, Xavier 53

As impressive as Fran Dunphy's first Atlantic 10 title was, his second was even better. Although both runs through Atlantic City ended the same way, Temple didn't play Xavier in 2008. They did this past March, and the Owls' win was their biggest to date in Dunphy's tenure.

It's one thing to win a conference tournament, but to be the best team in a conference is something different. That's what Temple became by beating the Musketeers, and it's why that win was even more significant than the Tennessee upset a few months earlier.

3. December 9: Villanova 97, St. Joseph's 89

Maybe I'm biased by recency in putting this game so high. But no one expected it expected to be close, and it was. St. Joe's just refused to go away, and trailed by only four points with two minutes remaining.

The better team won, but it wasn't easy. It was the best Holy War game in a while, not least because the raucous crowd reminded us of what the Palestra is supposed to sound like.

2. December 13: Temple 75, Villanova 65

The talk coming in was about Villanova's dominance in the Big 5. The Wildcats had won 21 of their last 22 City Series games, though some people forgot that the loss was only two seasons ago.

Still, people wondered if the Big 5 had become the Big 1. Now there might be a second horse in the race.

Maybe things would have been different if Juan Fernandez hadn't exploded for 33 points. And maybe if Temple and Villanova played a seven-game series, the Owls wouldn't win. But the Owls' stout defense wasn't a fluke, and Fran Dunphy's team hasn't looked back since.

1. March 26: Villanova 78, Pittsburgh 76

I wrote more words about this game than any other in the blog's history. This time, I'll let Scottie Reynolds do the talking.

Whether you spent today at church or a Chinese restaurant, best wishes for a merry and peaceful Christmas.