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March 12, 2016

Seton Hall 69, Villanova 67: Wildcats fall just short in classic Big East title game

NEW YORK -- Early during Saturday night’s Big East final, Villanova took a hard punch, dusted itself off, and got back up off the mat. The initial response was everything you could hope for, but the Wildcats couldn’t quite finish the fight.

In an old school Big East slugfest played in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd, powerful combo guard Isaiah Whitehead’s late three-point play gave Seton Hall its first Big East title since 1993. The No. 3 Pirates defeated No. 1 Villanova, 69-67:

“Great college basketball game, just awesome to be a part of it,” Jay Wright said after his team fell to 29-5 on the season. “The Garden was rocking. You know, we just got beat by a team that played better than us tonight. They played a great first half.”

Seton Hall led 40-29 at the break, and its first-half performance was spectacular. The Pirates got into passing lanes (seven steals), weren’t afraid to pull up for transition threes, and consistently took the Wildcats off the bounce once they got into their halfcourt offense. Led by Whitehead, who finished with 26 points and deservedly captured tournament MVP honors, the Pirates played fearless and free basketball:

(P.S. Gus Johnson rocks.)

“We definitely dug ourselves a hole in the first half,” Ryan Arcidiacono said. “They played really well. We didn’t execute our game plan.”

Villanova’s three-point shooting hovered around 17 percent into the second half, and you just figured that number would improve. You just figured the Wildcats had a run in them. And predictably, they were able to trim Seton Hall’s 11-point halftime lead to one with 12:24 left in the game.

From there, ‘Nova couldn’t find any separation as the teams sat on the seesaw. Looking back at past matchups, this was probably to be expected.

Seton Hall played the Wildcats tough a couple of times in the regular season (both ‘Nova wins), and the Pirates have made major improvements as the season went on. The teams’ series ended on January 20th, but Villanova’s coaching staff saw the development on film as the season moved along.

“When we watched films of other teams when we were preparing for Seton Hall, we kept saying these guys are getting better and better and better and better,” Wright said.

Kris Jenkins led the Wildcats with 23 points on 7-14 shooting, including this massive three (and no-call on the push-off):

After Whitehead’s basket with 18 seconds left put Seton Hall up one, Jenkins had a deep look at a three that didn’t go. Josh Hart got the offensive rebound, and he was hammered on the putback attempt. But the referees swallowed their whistles, and Seton Hall got its first title since 1993:

To Villanova’s credit, they didn’t seem to be fixated on the blown call. Those things can happen in close games, and it was the Wildcats’ poor first half that had them into catch-up mode. Everyone had at least a small hand in the loss. Hart missed a couple of layups that he usually makes and coughed up a key late turnover, for example.

“It was a coin flip,” Hart said of the call. “Five seconds left, ball bouncing all over the place. If I was on the other team, I would want the ref to swallow the whistle.”

They did, and ‘Nova now has just a few days to recover from a crushing loss in what was a classic Big East final. The more important tournament will likely begin on Friday in Brooklyn for the Wildcats.

“We really spend a lot of time talking about how we handle situations,” Wright said. “You want to handle success with humility, and you want to handle failure with a positive attitude.”

“It’s been an unbelievable ride and definitely didn’t finish the way I wanted it to," Arcidiacono said after shooting 2-10 in his final Big East game. “I have one game left in my career, so hopefully I learn from it.”

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann