Note: This is the Villanova perspective of the Big East Tournament championship game. Sean Saint Jacques is on the Seton Hall perspective, which will be a separate article/post.
The Villanova Wildcats made it to five-straight Big East Tournament championship games. Despite having been there and done that in recent seasons, this year’s run to the conference title felt a little more special.
With four players gone for the NBA Draft, assistant coaches leaving for new posts that were once vital in the 2016 and 2018 National Championship runs, and a Big East that was a lot more competitive--being able to achieve the first-ever Big East Tournament three-peat seemed like an improbable task entering this season.
The Wildcats had faced some turbulence along the way, with losing stretches that hadn’t been seen since conference realignment. There were bruised egos from the Furman and Penn games that raised doubt, the fall from the top of the Philadelphia Big 5, and a losing stretch that almost resulted in a missed Big East regular season title. It was a window of losses topped off with an upset by the Seton Hall Pirates in the regular season finale.
The Wildcats fought their way through a couple of scares from the likes of the Providence Friars and the Xavier Musketeers to make it back to the championship game. There, they faced a determined Pirates team that was looking to knock them off once again.
However, unlike the regular season finale, the Wildcats would hold off their adversaries to cling onto the title for a third-consecutive season, pulling off the first-ever three-peat, in an intense 74-72 title game that came down to the final seconds.
”It means a lot to our program to get these grind-it-out kind of games,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “It’s really a tribute to Phil [Booth] and Eric [Paschall]. They really have been like coaches this season. We can do so much on the court, but they’ve got to take guys in the locker room and teach them how they prepare for practice, how they prepare for games...They’ve been like big brothers, fathers almost, to these guys.”
Booth and Paschall were both named to the All-Tournament team. Just as they had done throughout the season, the senior co-captain tandem came up big once again for the ‘Cats. Paschall had a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds. Booth was named Tournament MVP and finished with 16 points.
Their influence seemed to have rubbed off onto younger players like sophomore Jermaine Samuels and freshman Saddiq Bey--both of whom, had crucial championship game performances in their first-ever participation in the Big East Tournament finals. Samuels had 12 points and seven rebounds--hitting timely three-pointers and grabbing key offensive rebounds that led to second-chance opportunities to help the ‘Cats stay in front.
Meanwhile, Bey had a double-double, putting together the best all-around performance of his young career. Bey added 16 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks, and two steals to the winning effort.
”You live the present, so what you’re doing now is most important that’s really all that matters,” Wright said. “What you did in the past doesn’t matter. This is thrilling. There’s more to this one--just watching these two [seniors], what they did. We lost our two top assistants. We had young coaches that did a great job and these two were like coaches. I would really go to them and have meetings with them...and we have really good guys that allows us to coach them. So it’s really been reward, this is a real special one.”
The ‘Cats had been inches and seconds away from getting dethroned. Seton Hall--fresh off of an intense semifinal showdown with Marquette, combined with a ferocious mentality that came from its resurgent stretch of recent wins--never stopped fighting.
The Pirates had a chance to snatch the crown away, but Myles Powell’s three-point attempt was no good. After a mental lapse granted Seton Hall another shot to at least tie or win the game, a lob on the inbounds pass was tipped and the final buzzer sounded.
”I thought it was going to drop,” Powell said of his three-point attempt. “Shooters usually aim for the back of the rim, and it just hit off long. We got another opportunity at it. We tried to throw it up to Sandro to see if he could tie it, but we just didn’t have enough time.”
Whenever it seemed like Villanova would pull away, the Pirates would fire back with scoring spurts and capitalize on turnovers to halt the Wildcats’ momentum.
An Anthony Nelson and-1 and a Powell layup off of a steal made it 68-64, Villanova, with just 2:26 remaining--ending a 9-0 Villanova run.
After a couple of exchanges, the Pirates got a pair of free throws from Nelson to drop to make it a three-point game. Then, Powell drew a charge with less than 30 seconds remaining to force a turnover. He went for a quick two-point bucket, scoring a layup that cut the ‘Nova lead to just 73-72, with 15.5 seconds left.
Unfortunately for Seton Hall, that would be the closest it got to catching the ‘Cats.
Powell delivered another electric performance to lead Seton Hall, racking up a game-high 25 points. He also had five boards, four assists, and three steals. Nelson, a freshman guard, also had a solid performance, chipping in 12 points. Myles Cale added 10 points.
Powell and Quincy McKnight were also named to the All-Tournament team for Seton Hall.
With the win, Villanova improves to 25-9 overall.
”We want to give a lot of credit to Seton Hall,” Wright said. “Kevin’s done as good a job as anybody in this country. THis team, this Seton Hall team right now, if you look at their games, losing in double-overtime on the road to Georgetown and then beating us, Marquette--all the teams in this tournament--they easily could have won this game. They can beat anybody in the NCAA Tournament and they have--they’ve beaten Kentucky, Maryland. Just speaks to how good our league is and what a great job Kevin did. We have a great respect for them.”
Seton Hall falls to 20-13. Although it came short in obtaining a tournament title, the Pirates are fired up and will take that intensity into the NCAA Tournament next week. From having their backs against the wall and looking like a team that would miss the NCAA Tournament, to putting together an impressive stretch of wins over some of the top teams in the conference, they are ready for whatever may come.
”I’m so proud of what we accomplished and where we are,” Willard said. “I’m also excited, if we play that hard next week, I’m excited about next week. That’s what I told the team--that’s a good basketball team out there cutting the nets, they deserve it. They had some big stops, but I love the fact my team fought, and we had a chance to win it. I’ll take [Powell] shooting the last-second shot every day.”