It may only be the first year of the "New Big East," but you wouldn't be able to tell after the thrilling ending to the rebranded league's first ever conference quarterfinal game.
After not dropping a regular season conference game to any team outside of Creighton, the No. (1) Villanova Wildcats lost in the most heartbreaking of fashion to the (8) Seton Hall Pirates 64-63. The loss almost all but ends the Cats' hopes of earning a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, while Pirates advance to their first Big East semifinals since 2001.
This nail-biter was the definition of a tale of two-halves, thus leading to one of the most exciting and memorable games in the young-life of the newly restructured Big East.
The first half was a complete domination for Seton Hall. The half really turned in the Pirates favor after the first TV Timeout. At that point in time, it was a 9-9 game. After that, The Hall went on a 25-11 run to take a 34-20 lead with 1:53 left in the first half.
Just when it seemed like Seton Hall would have all of the momentum going into halftime, Nova when on a mini run of its own, 6-0 to be exact, to cut the Pirates lead down to eight going into the break.
Coming out of halftime, the wise man would assume that the Cats would immediately make a furious run to attempt some sort of comeback, but early on in the second that wasn't the case. In fact, Seton Hall actually extended its lead out to as much as 13, with 13:30 left, and it seemed as if all hope for Nova was lost.
With their backs up against the wall, the Cats began to flex their top-seeded muscle. After forcing only two turnovers in the first half, Nova ratcheted up its press defense and created four Seton Hall turnovers in a little under six minutes. Jay Wright and Co. stormed all the way back, and with 8:03 left in the game, Darrun Hilliard hit a 3-pointer to take the 47-44 lead. It was the Wildcats first advantage in the entire game up to that point. At that point in time, The Hall seemed absolutely rattled beyond fixing.
That's when things began to get wild.
Fuquan Edwin made a 3-pointer to tie the game back up at 47, with 6:59 left, and the battle was officially on. Over the next seven minutes or so, until the buzzer sounded, there were two ties and six lead changes, as the teams went back and forth to the point where it became nauseating.
Seton Hall regained the lead with a little less than six and a half minutes left and was somehow able to hold the advantage, despite those two previously mentioned ties, up until the last two minutes.
With 1:57 left, Hilliard rose up and hammered down a throttling dunk to give the Cats a 58-57 lead with 1:57 left. On the day, Hilliard struggled though, finishing with only nine points, his first game not scoring double figures since February 16.
The teams would then trade free throw line appearances, with The Hall making two and Nova making only one. The game was then tied with 58 seconds left.
Then off of another Pirates turnover, freshman Josh Hart finished with a layup to give the Wildcats another two-point advantage. Hart was nothing short of spectacular in this one, leading the Wildcats with 18 points and really leading their charge back in the second half.
All Nova needed to about wrap the game up was a stop, but Jaren Sina was having none of that idea, hitting a cold-blooded trey ball from the corner, his game-high second of the contest. This 3-pointer put Seton Hall back up by one with 21 seconds left. It then seemed as if The Hall had all but clinched the upset victory.
It was Hilliard though, once more, hitting a clutch jumper to then put the Wildcats up by one with only 11 seconds left, and Nova fans could see the victory within their grasp.
Unfortunately for those in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas, Pirates guard Sterling Gibbs was also within reach and due to actually being at MSG, he could go out and take it. The sophomore from Scotch Plains took a page out of former UCONN star Kemba Walker's book, hitting a filthy step back jumper, to break Villanova's heart, and launch The Hall into the Big East semifinals.
If there's one aspect that Villanova can point at to blame for the loss, it's the futility from beyond the 3-point line. The Cats entered the game as the third best 3-point shooting team in the conference (36.4%), but just couldn't hit the anything beyond the arc against The Hall. Nova shot a putrid 4/19 (21%) from 3-point range in this one. That includes a 1/8 performance from long range in the first half.
Behind Hart's previously mentioned 18 points off of the bench, only one other Wildcat finished with double digit points. This performance came from JayVaughn Pinskton, who finished the game with 11 points, but he left many more out on the court. Despite shooting 50% from the field, Pinkston was miserable from the charity stripe, as he shot only 3-10 from the free throw line, despite entering the game as a 78% free throw shooter on the season.
Meanwhile for Nova, James Bell continued his disappointing stretch of offensive showings, with one of his worst outings of the season. Bell finished with only 3 points against Seton Hall, with all three points coming from the free throw line. From the field, Bell couldn't get anything to go down, and finished 0/8.
On the other side, Seton Hall rode Gene Teague to victory for the second straight game. Teague finished with his second straight double-double of the Big East Tournament, with 19 points and 12 rebounds to once again pace The Hall's scoring attack. Also finishing with double digits was junior Patrik Auda, who tallied all 13 of his points in the first half, and Gibbs, who ended up with 10 points after his game winner.
After a disappointing one-and-done in the Big East Tournament, Villanova will now have to wait and see if it receives a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, during the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday. Meanwhile, Seton Hall will play tomorrow against the winner of the Providence-St. John's (4) vs. (5) matchup.