NEW YORK, N.Y. – With its offense stuck in neutral, Villanova found a way to emerge with a 55-53 victory over Seton Hall in a Friday night BIG EAST Tournament thanks in no small part to the late game heroics of national player of the year candidate Josh Hart.
Hart scored 14 of his game-high 19 points after intermission, including the game-winning points on a put-back of a Kris Jenkins miss with nine seconds to play that proved to be the difference. It was the second time in as many seasons that the Pirates and Wildcats played a thriller under the bright lights at Madison Square Garden, with the Hall pulling out a 69-67 win in the 2016 BIG EAST Tournament title game.
With the win the ‘Cats (30-3 overall) advance to the title contest for the third season in a row. They become only the fifth team in conference history to appear in the title game in three consecutive seasons – Louisville, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse are the others.
“Seton Hall is playing its best basketball and was outstanding,” stated Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “As a coach, I just have to say our players just made great individual plays in the second half.
“Their game plan was better than ours. Our players just made plays down the stretch. The plays Jalen (Brunson) made were defended well by Seton Hall. Jalen just made an individual play. The shot Kris took on our final possession was not the shot we wanted to take but Josh just got a big-time offensive rebound.”
The Wildcats survived a final bid by the Pirates to tie or take the lead as sophomore Eric Paschall did a superb job on standout Seton Hall center Angel Delgado.
“Defensively, we had some great stops,” Wright noted. “I thought the job Eric Paschall did against Delgado on the last possession was tremendous. That’s not easy.”
After connecting on 63 percent of their field goal attempts in scoring a season-high 108 points in a Thursday BIG EAST Tournament quarterfinal, the Wildcats found themselves in a different circumstance on Friday. Villanova converted just 1-of-11 attempts from the floor in the first six plus minutes and dug an early 13-5 hole.
For the second time in as many days, though, a boost from the bench came courtesy of redshirt freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo. The product of Wilmington, Del., drained the Wildcats first two 3-pointers of the contest – they had misfired on their first seven attempts – and later added a free throw to shave the gap to 13-12 with just over nine minutes to play in the first half.
A dunk by Mikal Bridges along the baseline drew the Wildcats even but then came a Pirate surge. After a Myles Powell 3-pointer – his third of the first half – Seton Hall led 25-14 with just under five minutes to play in the first half.
As the Pirates heated up, the Wildcats still battled to find a consistent flow at the offensive end of the court. VU was just 6-of-23 from the floor over the game’s first 17 minutes.
Villanova stiffened its defense over the final minutes and pulled to within 27-20 at the half. For the period the Wildcats were 7-of-26 (.269) from the floor, including 3-of-13 (.231) from beyond the 3-point arc. DiVincenzo’s seven points led the Wildcats and the 20 points were a season low for VU in the first 20 minutes.
The Wildcats opened the second half on a better offensive note as Bridges drained a 3-pointer. Each mini-Villanova surge, however, engendered a Seton Hall response. The most apparent example came after a 6-0 spurt capped by a Josh Hart steal and basket gave VU a 41-40 lead, the Pirates came right back with a free throw and a Khadeen Carrington 3-pointer to retake the lead at 44-41 with 7:37 to play in the second half.
That set the stage for a furious finish that was highlighted by the work of Hart, who also added 10 rebounds.
“I saw that Kris’ shot had too much mustard on it,” the senior stated, “I just went to the glass and fortunately the ball bounced to me perfectly and I was able to put it back up there.”