NEWARK, NJ -- Coming off an emotional win in a game they had to have, Seton Hall went into a statement game against Villanova with a sellout home crowd and momentum on their side, plus a nationally televised audience to whom they could showcase their NCAA Tournament prospects just three weeks from Selection Sunday.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, the reigning national champions were out to accomplish the same, and did so in a machine-like fashion.
The second-ranked Wildcats shook off an early punch to the jaw from Seton Hall, driving away with a 16-3 run in the first half, and then slammed the door with a 22-1 spurt that bridged the final 2:47 of the opening stanza with the first 3:11 after the intermission. All told, Villanova shot an astounding 67 percent from the floor while picking apart the Pirates in a 92-70 trouncing before 16,733 patrons at the Prudential Center, improving to 26-2 overall and 13-2 in Big East play. In the process, Seton Hall drops to 16-10 on the year, and 6-8 in league games with four more chances to prove themselves worthy of a spot in the field of 68.
With Jason Guerette unavailable this afternoon due to play-by-play commitments on both halves of St. Francis Brooklyn's home doubleheader, it is my honor to fill in for him with five thoughts from today's transpirings on the other side of the Hudson River:
1) Poetry in Motion
That would be the best way to describe Villanova's offense Saturday, as the Wildcats put on a clinic with their 33-for-49 showing while only missing six shots after halftime to further their impressive afternoon.
"The difference was they didn't miss no shots," a candid Angel Delgado succinctly summarized as the Pirates were unable to slay the giant despite 19 points and 12 rebounds of his own. "I think we played hard, but they didn't miss a shot. They're just a tough team."
With that said, the Dominican big man welcomed the prospect of a third go-round with Villanova, saying he would "love to see them" in next month's Big East Tournament, invoking an old coach's adage in the process.
"It's tough to beat a team three times in a row," Delgado surmised. "I don't think they'll do that in the Big East (tournament)."
2) Coup de Grace
The defining moment of Saturday's affair was twofold: First, Villanova overcame a determined rush by the Pirates, who staked themselves out to a 9-3 lead in the opening minutes, clearly feeding off the capacity crowd while the Wildcats merely rode the wave before imposing their will as the half went on. A dunk by Josh Hart, who erupted for 37 points and 11 rebounds against Notre Dame in Newark on December 10, gave the visitors a 12-11 lead they would never relinquish. Later in the half, after a Desi Rodriguez three-pointer brought Seton Hall back within one point at 31-30, Villanova proceeded to make each of their next nine shots to open the floodgates.
"That was big," Jay Wright said of the aforementioned 22-1 outburst. "It was a close game, we had Josh in foul trouble and we got some good defensive stops. It really came off our defense, and I thought that was important because it was a two-point game when we went on that run. The way we closed out the half was really important."
3) Big Fight Feel
With the upper bowl being opened for just the second time in Seton Hall's decade-long residence in the home of the New Jersey Devils, it added an extra element to the in-game atmosphere, but one Villanova was able to handle having played in front of 20,000-plus at the Wells Fargo Center this season, not to mention a similar crowd in this venue against Notre Dame in December. And in the midst of Seton Hall firing the first salvo, the visitors remained calm and stayed the course.
"Unfortunately, we've played here and they've always gotten off to good starts," Wright conceded. "They did again, and I could sense from our guys, 'alright, this happens every time.' The place kept going, and having seniors like Kris (Jenkins) and Josh, having those kind of guys to stabilize you is big. I think the next play, Josh hit a three to get us started, so we're lucky to have seniors like that that are used to these types of environments."
4) Excellence of Execution
Jalen Brunson defined the brilliance of the Villanova offensive game, making all seven of his field goal attempts en route to a 22-point, 10-assist double-double. The only blemish on the sophomore's line aside from three turnovers was a missed free throw just over three minutes into the game, but after that, it was smooth sailing for Ryan Arcidiacono's successor, who has been quite adept with the keys to the car in his own right.
"He just controlled the game," said Wright of Brunson. "When he sees that we need scoring from that position, he does it, and when he sees we need him to organize us, he does it. That's the beauty of a great point guard. He's great at both, and I thought it was really apparent today."
Brunson has also thrived in the shadow of receiving less national attention, as the likes of Lonzo Ball, De'Aaron Fox and Frank Mason III have dominated the landscape, but substance over style has suited he and his team just fine.
"Like many of our guys, he's not flashy," Wright continued. "He's not dunking on people, he's not throwing fancy passes. He's just efficient. I wouldn't trade him for anybody in the country at the point guard spot, and he does so many other things. He defends for us, he rebounds, he runs the team. Kris and Josh get a lot of offense off of him, too. He's a great leader on the floor."
5) One More Match
Wednesday's clash with Xavier is the final contest in Seton Hall's three-game homestand, and after today's loss, it might be the last chance for the Pirates to cement their NCAA Tournament hopes without having to win a Big East Tournament game to boost their standing on the bubble. While some believe The Hall is under pressure, Khadeen Carrington remains unfazed.
"I don't think it's pressure," the Pirates' junior guard calmly stated. "We've just got to go out and play, and have fun doing it. I don't really take it as pressure. We've just got to get a couple more little things, maybe a box-out, diving on the floor (and) getting an extra loose ball, things like that. That's what it came down to at Xavier."