After the first few days of this tournament, it might be time to put those comparisons to the “old” Big East to rest.
On Wednesday night, St. John’s beat Georgetown in an epic showdown, usurping the Hoyas by just one point. The following day, ‘Nova broke records and made history, then later, Xavier upset Butler to face off against Creighton.
Friday night–well, what a day. Both semifinal games were decided by three points made in the last ten seconds of the game, echoing and mirroring some intense matchups that the Garden had seen before on its hallowed floors.
Villanova tipped off the semifinal double-header, beating Seton Hall, 55-53, in the final moments of the game–avenging last year’s loss in the Big East Tournament championship game and adding another Villanova-Seton Hall classic.
“All we hear about in the spring meeting is ‘the other conferences are coming’ and I’m so tired of it,” said Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard. “This is the best tournament in the country and the fans show up, it’s great, it’s a tradition you know? It’s phenomenal.”
With nine seconds to go, Josh Hart corralled an offensive rebound and got an and-one. He then made an easy free throw to put Villanova up by two, forcing Seton Hall to do something exceptional in order to win the game in regulation time or bring the game into overtime.
The Pirates passed the ball inside to Angel Delgado, whose layup banked off the rim. The junior center almost had the offensive rebound for a putback, but Donte DiVincenzo swatted the ball away into the hands of Hart, who threw it down the court as the final buzzer sounded.
Hart finished the game with a game-high 19 points and 10 rebounds. The final moments of the game were such a blur for him, as the Wildcats got caught up in the moment.
“I think it was a turnover?” Hart tried to recall, “I’m not sure what happened but somehow we had the ball in transition, I kicked it to Kris… I think he was kind of surprised he was so open. Right when I saw him shoot it, I knew he put a little too much mustard on it, and I was just like ‘you know what, just–just go get it’ and luckily it bounced into the perfect spot, and I was able to just get and go up with it.”
Almost exactly a year ago, Villanova and Seton Hall were warming up for a thriller just like the one that occurred on Friday night. Except that was in the championship game, where the Pirates unseated the Wildcats for the Big East throne. This time around, the Wildcats got their revenge, but it wasn’t easy.
Despite blowing out Seton Hall comfortably in both meetings this season, a noticeable similarity to last year’s championship was the struggle Villanova seemed to have against Seton Hall, something that has become somewhat expected when the two teams meet up.
“They’re just really good defensively,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “It just seemed that when we get them in the tournament, coming off a win, and we expect things to be easy and when they’re not we just lose our personality – but I think they do a great job. Their athleticism, their physicality – they’re more physical than any other team in the league. They do a great job guarding us, the things that we do they match up well.”
In the first half, Seton Hall’s exceptional defense kept ‘Nova to just 7-of-26 (26.9 percent) for field goals, and only 3-13 (23.1 percent) from beyond the arc. Halftime was obviously a pivotal point of the game, with Jay firing up his guys and convincing them to pour their hearts and souls into the rest of the battle against the Pirates.
“Coach… he challenged us,” said Hart about the halftime talk. “Coach challenged us to play Villanova Basketball for 20 minutes and we knew it was gonna be a tough game – we knew we weren’t going to go out and just blow them out by like 20 in the second half. We knew it was a grind, we just challenged each other.”
After the half, it wasn’t exactly a rose-lined path for the Wildcats. They fought tooth and nail for every ball, each possession and rebound and box-out mattered. Sophomore Jalen Brunson didn’t let up the entire game, he made 13 points. Eric Paschall even had to change his jersey at one point–trade out No. 4 for No. 44–because he ripped his jersey in a defensive play.
“I think we got outplayed tonight,” Wright said. “We just found ways at the end–great players made great plays. It was a great Big East basketball game.”
If Friday night proved anything, it’s that Big East basketball sure is great. The tournament is celebrating its 35th year in Madison Square Garden this year, and that impressive tradition isn’t lost on the Villanova fans, coaches, or players.
“You grow up watching the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, all the battles… there’s so much history in this,” Hart said. “This league, this tournament, and to be in three straight [championships] is amazing. I guarantee in 20 or 30 years, I’m gonna be one guy that brags a lot but right now we won’t think about that at all. We’re gonna think about who we have tomorrow. We know we have a tough opponent tomorrow, and we can’t celebrate being in our third straight we gotta come focused and ready.”
As impressive as Hart’s rebound and winning follow-up were, an equally impressive – and classy move by Hart – occurred seconds after Delgado had missed a layup attempt that would have tied the game just before the buzzer sounded. While most of the ‘Cats were celebrating their win, Hart noticed Delgado down on the ground, very upset about having missed a chance to tie the game, and having to realize that the Hall’s tourney was over. Hart helped and encouraged Delgado to his feet. When asked what he said to the distraught player he had just competed against, Hart had a moment of empathy.
“We’ve had some battles the last four years,” Hart said. “All respect for coach Willard – he gets the most out of his guys and they’re tough, physical, and very well coached. I just told him.. ‘Angel, you’re a heck of a player, just keep going, you’ve got a bright future. We felt this feeling last year.’ I said, ‘you have this feeling right now – don’t have this feeling again.’”
Now, the Wildcats turn their eyes to the championship game, where they will go for their second title in three years. They take on sixth-seeded Creighton. Tip-off is at 5:30 p.m.