NEW YORK — In many ways, Friday night’s 55-53 Big East semifinal thriller between Seton Hall and No. 2 Villanova was a replica of last year’s title game.
It was a fierce battle that felt like a Big East game out of the 90s which ended with another big-time and-one play as well as literal tears on the court for the loser.
Leading by one with the ball, :46 on the clock, and two timeouts, the Hall opted to keep rolling like they’ve done all season resulting in a Khadeen Carrington missed jumper he would regret post-game.
Following Josh Hart’s clutch but ordinary-for-him go-ahead put-back, Angel Delgado then backed down Kris Jenkins before just missing a two-footer that left him collapsed on the court in utter despair.
Delgado’s eyes were still beet-red over 30 minutes later in a hushed Seton Hall locker room that featured assistant coaches and former players Shaheen Holloway and Grant Billmeier as dejected as any current player.
“It’s the first time feeling like this in my life,” managed a weary Delgado after he said the loss was his fault. “We just have to work harder than ever, because I don’t like this feeling.”
The Seton Hall big man received an incredible gesture from a Seton Hall fan-hated Josh Hart immediately after the buzzer along with the rest of the Wildcats, who came over to Angel as he was still situated in the scuffed-up Madison Square Garden paint.
“It means a lot because he’s a great player,” said Delgado of Hart’s empathy a few years removed from the Wildcat intentionally tripping him in Newark. “I got a lot of respect for him, I hope he does good in life because he’s a good kid.”
“I have so much respect for that program, we’ve had some battles over the last four years,” said a senior Hart of his literal out-reached hand post-game.
“We felt this feeling last year. I said [to Delgado] ‘You have this feeling right now, come NCAA tournament time, don’t have this feeling again.’”
If Seton Hall can even come close to mirroring what Villanova did after their loss at the Mecca last March, watch out.
“We gave it all, I give the guys credit. I put a little on my side, it was my fault, but my guys, you have to give them all the best,” said Delgado of his team’s immediate future.
“For me, we’re the best team in the country, I’ve got the best guys on my team. … We really know we can do a lot more. We can win it all, in my opinion. I think we can win it all.”
While Delgado, who missed his high-percentage look which would have pushed the game to overtime, was blaming himself, Khadeen Carrington was also pointing the finger — at himself.
“I don’t feel good at all right now,” he shot back when asked if the team is peaking at the right time.
“We’re still peaking, we played a great game, it came down to the wire and we had a chance — I had a chance to seal it, so I’ll take the blame for it. … Everybody is hurtin’ but I don’t think he [Delgado] should put the blame on himself, he played a great game, he’s having an unbelievable season. It’s not his fault at all, he feels like it’s his fault but it’s not his fault.”
After the players sort out whose fault it was they fell a basket short of taking down a top-five ranked school at the Big East tournament in consecutive seasons, they know they have to put their heads down and work amidst a different vibe heading into the NCAA tournament compared to last March.
People always say that teams which win conference tournaments — particularly the Big East — may be a bit complacent or worn out heading into the Big Dance, and there’s a good case that affected the Hall last season.
That obviously won’t be the case this time around, but the Pirates have a different type of emotional mountain to traverse.
“It’s tough. You give your heart out, you play arguable the best team in the country right down to the wire,” said Kevin Willard.
“But we’ve got to bounce back. I’ve been saying it all year, when we were 3-6, I have 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.”
Carrington echoed his coach’s sentiment.
“We’ll bounce back. We’ve done a good job of bouncing back all year. It looked like we weren’t going to make the tournament earlier in the Big East season but we bounced back and that’s what we need to do again.”