Having been blown out twice this season by arguably the best team in the country, Seton Hall came into the Big East Tournament semifinals and played the Villanova Wildcats about as well as anyone has this season. But in a twisted reverse of fate, despite a similar storyline from last year's Big East title game, the ending was the opposite, with Angel Delgado missing a layup with just seconds remaining and Villanova emerging with a 55-53 win.
Here are the Thoughts, with postgame quotes below.
1. Let's Get Physical
This was a low-scoring game, so it may not have translated well onto television, but boy, oh boy did those two teams battle for 40 minutes. I talked to Desi Rodriguez, who led the Pirates with 14 points, after the game, and that indeed was the Hall's gameplan- to try and take the Wildcats "out of their comfort zone." And they executed it well, defending as well as they could against the uber-talented second-ranked team in the nation.
It translated into a 27-20 halftime lead for the Pirates, with Villanova shooting just 7-for-26 from the field in the first half. Seton Hall had an edge in the paint (14-4) and in second-chance points (7-0) that ended up holding throughout the game (32-16 and 16-7, respectively). It allowed them to stay in it until the very end, but this time the ball did not bounce their way.
For those who laud "old-school" Big East basketball, this game was it.
It went down to the wire once again at the Garden between these two teams, and the gauntlet was laid when Khadeen Carrington grabbed a loose ball underneath the basket with just 1:43 remaining after the teams traded baskets for a couple possessions. Carrington hit the free throw and gave Seton Hall a one-point lead, 53-52. Josh Hart (more on him in a bit) missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but Delgado turned the ball over on a traveling (it was the right call, by the way- I saw it clearly). Hart was then tied up to give the ball back to the Pirates.
Kevin Willard opted not to use one of his two remaining timeouts on the ensuing possession, and the Wildcats took advantage as Hart, on a missed three by Kris Jenkins, laid it back in and was fouled, making the foul shot and making the score 55-53. On the Hall's last possession, they found Delgado right in front of the rim against Jenkins, but Delgado missed a little layup and that was all she wrote.
By the way, I know it's not possible, but I'd like to lobby for these two teams to hook up every year at the Big East Tournament. Each of the last three meetings at The Garden have been down to the wire, with the Pirates winning two of those. It's phenomenal whenever they meet, it seems, in New York City. Make this happen, basketball gods!
Delgado was inconsolable after the final buzzer, lying on the floor right where he had missed the shot seconds earlier. His teammates came over to try and assist their big man, who had just been named a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award finalist as one of the best centers in the country. But then, something great happened. Hart, the Big East's Player of the Year, also came over and embraced Delgado, saying "you're a heck of a player- keep going, you've got a bright future."
He also added "we felt this feeling last year. You have this feeling right now. In the NCAA Tournament, don't have this feeling again." It was an extremely classy move, and Villanova's bench followed their leader, with most of the Wildcats joining in in consoling the junior.
As an aside, in the locker room afterwards, you could feel the disappointment in the air. Delgado himself looked like he had been crying, and for someone with a vivacious, upbeat personality that buoys his teammates, it was hard to see him like that. Having covered the team all season, it was maybe the roughest part of the loss for me, personally.
4. Great Players Make Great Plays
A familiar refrain in all sports, but for Villanova, it rang true. Jay Wright even said it first thing in the postgame press conference: "I think we got outplayed . And we just found ways at the end. Great players make great plays, and Jalen and Josh just individually made incredible plays."
To whit- the last point scored by a player NOT named Josh Hart (19 points) or Jalen Brunson (who was the other Wildcat in double figures with 13 points) came at the 13:08 mark on a Jenkins free throw. That's the last TWENTY points of the game scored by two players, 12 of those by Hart, who looked every bit the Big East Player of the Year that he is. You have to give all the credit in the world to those two guards.
Last year, Seton Hall had their guards (specifically Isaiah Whitehead) make all the plays down the stretch, and in the end, the reversal of that won Villanova the game. For Seton Hall fans- do not despair. The Pirates will be in the Big Dance, and depending on their seeding and matchups could knock off a team or two in the tournament. The Pirates, at least on the defensive side of the ball, are playing exceptionally well, and with Carrington, Delgado and Rodriguez, you never know when one of them can go off for 25 in a given game.
The Pirates will be a dangerous out in the Big Dance. It just so happened tonight that Hart and Brunson were a little more dangerous.
...on the game
"Their gameplan was better than ours. That's on me. But our players just made plays down the stretch... we ran plays, they didn't work - Seton Hall defended them - and then (Josh) just went and made an individual play"
...on why Seton Hall plays them tough a lot
"I think they're just really good defensively, and it just seems when we get them in the tournament, we're 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 of it. Their athleticism and their physicality, they're more physical than any team in the league. They do a great job guarding us- the things that we do, they match up really well."
...on the postgame sequence with Delgado
"I have so much respect for that program. We've had some battles over the last four years. Got all the respect for Coach Willard- he gets the most out of his guys, and they're tough."
"I told Angel 'you're a heck of a player, and just keep going- you've got a bright future. And we felt this feeling last year. You have this feeling right now (Come) NCAA Tournament time, don't have this feeling again."
...on his team's effort
"The guys player phenomenal. Their effort was off the charts...I had a lot of confidence in the guys. I love the way we're playing. We're playing great defensively. Brunson hurt us, made some great plays towards the end of the game, but we still had a chance to win it. So proud of my guys."
...on the atmosphere
"I thought both schools really showed up well. It's good to see- everyone was worried about... all you hear in spring meetings is that 'all the conferences are coming'... I'm so tired of it. This is the best basketball tournament in the country. It's a tradition. It's phenomenal."
...on what his team can take from the loss going into the NCAA Tournament
"That's just what we talked about in the locker room. It's tough- you give your heart out, you play arguably the best team in the country down the the wire, you lose... but we've got to bounce back. I've got a lot of confidence in this group. We'll bounce back. We'll fight back. It's who we are, it's what we've done."
...on his last shot
"Just missed it- that's it. It's just something that's never happened in my life. That's the first time. And I've got to live with it."