NEWARK, NJ -- It was one of those classic Big East games where toughness and defense were required to even step between the lines. After an ugly first half, a resilient and shorthanded Seton Hall team playing without leading scorer Desi Rodriguez and backup point guard Jordan Walker came back with a late push to force overtime, and nearly came back again late in the extra session, but ultimately fell to the national title-contending Wildcats, 69-68, in front of over 13,000 fans at the Rock in Newark.
Here are the thoughts from a late night at Prudential Center:
1. Rock Fight
…to end all rock fights, aka the first half Wednesday night. Seton Hall and Villanova combined to start out the game 7-for-13 entering the first media timeout. The rest of the half, they shot 9-for-47. It didn’t matter whether the look was an open one. Chances were that it just didn’t drop.
Seton Hall shot an abysmal 21 percent for the half and just 1-12 from three. That one make was by Myles Powell, and it gave the Pirates a one-point lead with 9:16 remaining in the half. The Pirates didn’t hit another field goal in the stanza, as Villanova stacked up inside and held Angel Delgado to just two points on 0-for-3 shooting, making Khadeen Carrington’s and Powell’s jobs even harder.
But they were down only six because Villanova was uncharacteristically off. Give credit to the Pirates’ defense, which was pretty good. The effort was definitely there, but even so, Villanova missed some open shots they usually hit. They were only 3-for-15 from three-point range, but the Hall couldn’t take advantage due to their poor shooting. It was equal parts being astounded and relieved to be down six while shooting 21 percent and being bummed that the Wildcats were still up six despite such a defensive effort.
2. Will Over Skill
The defense in this game on both sides ended up being high-level stuff, though. Sure, there were open shots that just didn’t fall, making the game a little hard on the eyes, but most of the shots were contested. There were 84 rebounds to be had, and the margin was nearly even (43-41, Seton Hall). There weren’t a lot of turnovers forced, but those were nearly equal as well.
“In this league, when you play a game like this and both teams battle, I couldn’t be any more proud of my guys,” Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said. “I hate losing, but when you go out and leave it all out on the floor like these guys did, both teams should be proud. Sometimes you lose those games.”
The key for the Pirates, and for most teams, to hang with Villanova is for them to just plain miss some from the outside, and boy, did they miss some. A final tally of 22 percent from downtown (8-for-36) was the third-worst night from outside the Wildcats have had this year percentage-wise, and it allowed the Pirates to hang around, first throughout the second half before the Hall made their run, and then in OT when ‘Nova couldn’t put the final nail in the coffin.
Still, the odds were against the Pirates, and they threw those out the window by sticking with it and battling.
“I’m very impressed with Seton Hall to be playing without one of the best players in the league and to compete like that,” Wildcats head coach Jay Wright said. “They were outstanding, and a lot of credit (goes) to them. When they get Desi back, that’s one hell of a team.”
3. Killer B’s (and Frees)
Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson saved Villanova Wednesday. Bridges was the only guy who had a great game from start to finish on either side, as he finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals on 9-for-18 shooting. Two of the three triples he hit were critical ones down the stretch, one in regulation and one in overtime, to help the Wildcats stay a nose ahead.
“That’s just typical Mikal,” Jay Wright said. “We don’t run a lot of stuff for him. He just finds his way to get shots and defensively, he’s tough and rebounds the ball. He just does so many things for us and he’s such a great all-around player.”
Brunson, meanwhile, was completely stymied by the Hall for the first 36 minutes of the game, as he had just two points on 1-for-8 shooting at the four-minute media timeout. But he was dynamite after that, showing everyone why he’s one of the favorites for Big East Player of the Year and an All-American to boot, scoring 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the last eight or so minutes of the game.
“That’s the sign of a great player,” Wright said. He’s not afraid to fail and loves having the pressure on his shoulders. That’s what the great ones do. That’s vintage Jalen Brunson. Just no fear of failure.”
Ironically, the one moment down the stretch that Brunson, an 80 percent free throw shooter, was human, was when he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 late in regulation that allowed the Pirates to eventually tie the game. But the fact that they only tied the game is one of the reasons this is a Pirate loss fter Carrington was fouled by Bridges with 11 seconds left, Villanova called timeout. He missed the first free throw after the stoppage, which would have tied the game and given him a chance to win it on the second, before making the second.
My money is, that if Carrington, an 83 percent foul shooter, made the first, he would have knocked down the second. But such is life, and the reason Seton Hall was in that position was because of a missed foul shot.
“(It) hit back rim, front rim, and then fell out,” Carrington said of the missed shot. “Coach and I have been working on my shot, so I put it up with confidence, but came up short. We should have been going home in regulation. I put that on myself.”
4. The Streak Survives
Not to toot my own horn, but my presence in the building may have had something to do with the closeness of the contest. Since I was courtside for Sterling Gibbs’ buzzer-beater to beat the top-seeded Wildcats at Madison Square Garden in the 2013 Big East Tournament, every single Seton Hall-Villanova game I have seen in person has either been a Pirates win, a close game, or both. The following season (2014-15), the Pirates won at home in overtime. The year after that, they fell, but by just a point in Newark before beating the Wildcats for the Big East title at Madison Square Garden. Last year in the Big East Tournament, they dropped a game by two points, and Wednesday, a one-point defeat in overtime.
I was not in the building when the Wildcats blew out the Hall in Newark last year, and I have not attended a road game in the series. Perhaps I need to go to The Pavilion to give the Pirates a shot at breaking a road losing streak that dates back to the Clinton administration. Just saying.
5. M*A*S*H Unit
Playing without Rodriguez and Walker, the Pirates were also were without Ish Sanogo; who sprained his ankle late in regulation, and Myles Cale, who cramped up in overtime, for a lot of critical posessions. Give full credit to the Hall for hanging tough without them, but it does create a bit of an issue heading down the stretch this season. Willard offered some clarification on the wounded Pirates afterwards.
“Myles just cramped up. He hasn’t played that many minutes (in a game),” Willard said. “Ish is going to be out. He sprained his ankle, probably doubtful for Saturday. He looks better, he was able to shoot yesterday a little bit, but he’s still having a little trouble jumping, so we’ll see.”
Seton Hall isn’t the deepest team around, and the health of Rodriguez and Sanogo in particular is paramount to any postseason success the team may enjoy. Willard, and all Seton Hall fans, know this well.
“It’s going to be very important that we get healthy,” Willard said. “Once we get Desi back, it will put everything back to normal. That’s why I don’t know if he’ll play Saturday because I have to make sure he can play the rest of the way.”
The Pirates’ last regular season game is Senior Night against Butler at 8 p.m. on Saturday. Two of the four seniors that have meant so much to the program may not play, but again, such is life in the Big East in March.