Packed with nearly 20,000 Seton Hall and Villanova fans, Madison Square Garden was alive and well on Saturday; yet it was the Pirates’ play that spoke the loudest.
The Hall took down nationally ranked No. 3 Villanova, 69-67, on its way to a Big East Tournament victory. It was the Hall’s first conference championship in 23 years. Following the game, with emotions running high and words at a minimum, Kevin Willard kept it simple.
“Awesome,” the head coach said, smiling.
Isaiah Whitehead had made it known beforehand: He wanted Villanova.
Not only did the sophomore get his wish, but he took it to the Wildcats as well. Whitehead cemented his case for tourney MVP in the matchup, netting 26 points (11-21) and three assists. He averaged 23.3 points in three games for the entire tournament.
“This is an amazing accomplishment,” Whitehead said of the award. “If you look down the line at MVP’s in the Big East, it’s some real big-time names down there. To have my name on there is an amazing feeling.”
The Pirates ended halftime with a 40-29 lead, but found themselves in a rock fight with Nova for much of the second half. While Whitehead was leading the Pirates, Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart were keeping the Wildcats close. Jenkins finished the game with 23 points and five triples, while Hart notched 17 points.
It all came down to one final play. With plenty of contact coming under the basket and the Hall owning a one-point edge, Villanova failed to get the ball in the basket as Ryan Arcidiacono fell to the Garden floor. A few Angel Delgado free throws and 3.4 seconds later, the Pirates were kings of the Big East.
Defense was the name of the game for Seton Hall on Saturday, as the Pirates were able to swarm Villanova when it mattered the most, as seen on that final play. Ismael Sanogo anchored the Hall’s lockdown, recording two steals, one block and nine rebounds.
“We just went out there and played our hearts out,” Sanogo said. “It was just grit. We knew we had to go out there and defend.”
With the win, Seton Hall now has the NCAA Tournament to look forward to. The Pirates will host a Selection Sunday viewing party at 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 13 in Walsh Gymnasium. The team could be anywhere from a three to a five seed.
“Whoever we play better watch out,” Whitehead said.
Gary Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @GaryHPhillips.