NEW YORK — If you thought last year’s Big East title game couldn’t be matched, think again.
Seton Hall brought No. 2 Villanova to the buzzer, quite literally, in a thrilling Big East tournament semifinal that nearly went to overtime if not for a missed Angel Delgado two-footer as time expired.
In an identical fashion to the last meeting in Newark, Villanova got off to a slow offensive start while Seton Hall hit first despite a flurry of early fouls and careless turnovers.
In contrast to the last two games, however, Seton Hall was able to lock the Wildcats down on defensively after Kevin Willard briefly went into an incredibly active match-up zone coming out of the first media timeout, seemingly inspiring his troops.
Leading 18-14 coming out of the under-eight with Villanova shooting below 30-percent from the floor, an emphatic 11-0 run that was capped off by a Myles Powell (11 pts) three-ball injected a similar feel to the game as last March’s Big East title bout.
With a hard-to-believe 27-16 lead at the final media timeout, Villanova was able to build some momentum down the stretch as they held the Pirates scoreless for close to four minutes.
Just like the blow-out in Newark, Villanova came out of the break punching, but unlike that game, Seton Hall was able to hit back with a series of buckets instead of wilting.
As Villanova and subsequently the Wildcats-heavy crowd grew into the game, a series of lengthy timeouts mid-way through the half, one intentionally from Willard, acted as a spike strip to temporarily slow the national champions’ momentum.
But you don’t become the nation’s best team by accident.
Villanova took their first lead at 41-40 with nine to play after one of the nation’s best in Josh Hart flushed home a Seton Hall backcourt mistake.
The big-time play was a precursor of what was to come.
The Wildcats clamped down on a disjointed Seton Hall offense over the final eight minutes, allowing just nine points, before a frantic, nerve-racking grand finale.
Just a minute after a wild Madison Jones bank-shot in the lane, Khadeen Carrington somehow put home a loose ball from underneath the basket plus a foul to give the Hall a 53-52 lead with 1:43 to play.
After getting a stop on Villanova, Seton Hall then came up empty with two timeouts left and up a point with about a 15-second difference between the game clock and shot clock.
On the Wildcats’ next possession, an NCAA title game-like three-pointer from Kris Jenkins missed but none other than Hart scooped and scored a weak-side rebound plus a foul to give Villanova a 55-53 lead with 8 seconds to play which would not change.
The next play would leave Angel Delgado face down on the court with his head in his hands as Villanova was the team left celebrating with the clock at all zeroes.