March 20, 2009
The stakes are about to get much higher for both players.
In a matchup of two of the nation's top scorers, the eighth-seeded Wildcats open NCAA tournament play against the ninth-seeded Utes in the Raleigh Regional on Sunday.
Kurz helped lead Villanova (19-13) to its first tournament appearance since 2004, and Utah (22-9) has relied heavily on Warburton to make the field of 64 for the fourth time in five years. They had vastly different performances heading into the NCAAs, however.
Kurz, a first-team All-Big East selection, went scoreless in the Wildcats' 72-42 loss to top-ranked Connecticut in the Big East semifinals March 9. The senior forward had 21 points in a quarterfinal win over Notre Dame and is averaging 17.6 on the season.
Warburton, meanwhile, came up big throughout the stretch run for the Utes, who earned MWC regular-season and tournament titles after starting the season 4-6. The senior guard was outstanding in the conference title game, scoring 24 points and making the go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:57 left as Utah beat San Diego State 63-58 on March 14.
"It takes guts, because when you're willing to make plays to win a game, you may also not win games," Utes coach Elaine Elliott said. "That takes a big heart, and that takes somebody who's willing to take the failure of missing a shot (with) the wonders of making a shot."
Warburton, the MWC player of the year, is averaging 18.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 39.3 percent from 3-point range. Utah shoots 34.5 percent from long range while holding opponents to 29.8 percent.
The Wildcats are shooting 30.9 percent from beyond the arc but are tied for ninth in the nation in 3-pointers made per game at 7.9.
Coach Harry Perretta used a plodding offense to help Villanova finish fourth in the Big East after it was predicted to finish 10th. He shared conference coach of the year honors with UConn's Geno Auriemma.
Utah shot 45.5 percent (10-for-22) from long range in two MWC tournament contests, giving it 18 wins in its last 21 games. The Utes were able to bounce back from a tough start that included losses to Louisville and Virginia.
"What's good about this team is we find ways to win at the end of games," Warburton said. "I'm just so proud of everybody."
Warburton had 18 points and seven rebounds in Utah's first-round loss to Purdue last March. The Utes, making their 16th tournament appearance, have lost 15 of their 23 NCAA matchups.
Villanova is 7-8 in eight previous appearances. In their last one, the Wildcats advanced to the second round before losing to the Boilermakers on March 23, 2004.
This will be the first meeting between Villanova and Utah. The winner will face No. 1 seed Maryland or 16th-seeded Dartmouth on Tuesday.