NEW YORK – After three games in which the Seton Hall men’s basketball team enjoyed the luxury of a head-start over its opposition, the Pirates spent the Big East Tournament championship chasing top-seed Villanova, who did just enough to hold on for a record-setting third straight title, 74-72.
In a game where the largest lead was merely nine and the advantage changed hands nine times, freshman Anthony Nelson converted a put-back layup to give Seton Hall a short-lived 55-53 lead. Before play resumed with 9:22 remaining, Kevin Willard was whistled for a phantom technical foul, allowing Villanova to level the game via two Phil Booth free throws.
Several minutes later, the Pirates slipped into a nine-point hole, 68-59. But every time it looked like a wave of Villanova momentum would drown Seton Hall, the Pirates poked their heads above water.
Unfazed by the bright lights, pomp and circumstance, Nelson drove into traffic, absorbed a foul and finished at the rim. The New York city native finished with 12 points, behind only Myles Powell, who had 25.
“It’s the biggest game I’ve played in my whole life,” Nelson said, slumped down at his locker afterward. “I was just trying to bring a spark off the bench for my teammates: defensively, offensively, and just, make plays for everyone.”
Fellow freshman Jared Rhoden then picked off a pass and sent Powell down the court for a transition layup. Suddenly, the deficit was down to four.
With 41 seconds left, Nelson sank two free throws that cut the deficit to three, 73-70. Then, on the opposite end, in the corner by the Villanova bench, Myles Cale drew a charge on Eric Paschall.
On the ensuing possession, Powell elected to drive for a layup instead of hoist a potential tying three, and he missed his initial attempt. Following his shot, though, the Pirates’ ace put back his own rebound, making it a one-point game.
After a missed free throw from Paschall with 13 seconds left, Nelson frenetically dribbled up the court, calling timeout once he reached the Seton Hall bench. With nine seconds of regulation on the clock, the Pirates trailed by two, and Powell received the ball along the sideline.
The final sequence happened so quickly. Epitomizing the beauty and cruelness of sport, 40 minutes of game-time were boiled down to nine seconds.
Powell’s first couple steps were away from the basket, toward mid-court, backing himself into a corner. He then pushed forward quickly toward Phil Booth, and with four seconds left sprung over the Villanova senior for a potential tournament-winning three. But, just like the night prior with Markus Howard, the last-second prayer bounced off the rim and out.
“We had a good opportunity to make history tonight,” a somber Powell said at the podium. “So, I mean, we’re definitely hurting from it. Everybody compared us to the 2016 team, and we just wanted to match their legacy. So, I mean, when you come up short like that, it kind of hurts.”
Villanova relished in the miss after Booth got to the rebound, but referees deemed he had garnered possession and traveled – a final peculiar decision in a weekend infested with officiating controversy.
The result was another Seton Hall in-bound, but with only four-tenths of a second remaining. The inevitability of a Villanova triumph had time to sink in. Nelson wishfully tried to find Sandro Mamukelashvili for a tip-in, but his in-bound pass clanked the backboard to no avail.
The Pirates will find out tomorrow where they are in the NCAA Tournament field of 68 – the “if” has unofficially been removed from the equation.
While Powell may have been unable to match the 2016 team on the Big East Tournament stage, he and his teammates have a chance to become the first Kevin Willard team to dance into the second weekend. How is that for a legacy?
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.