The coronation was delayed by ‘Nova Nation on Wednesday night as the Villanova Wildcats spoiled Senior Night for Myles Powell and the Seton Hall Pirates. The ‘Cats escaped Newark with a narrow 79-77 victory and denied the Pirates the chance to clinch the Big East regular season title outright. In the process, Villanova also picked up an impressive Quad-1 win in the process. All in a day’s work, amirite?
The first half was somewhat of a relief for Villanova fans as the Wildcats (1) did not spot the Pirates an early double digit lead and (2) were actually making some baskets. Progress! The teams exchanged equal blows throughout the first half with Villanova leading for much of the way.
However, a mid-half cold streak from the ‘Cats opened the door for the Pirates, who went on a quick 9-2 spurt to take a narrow 4 point lead. That lead “ballooned” to 5 before Saddiq Bey and Collin Gillespie erased it with two straight three point buckets. On the final play of the half, Jermaine Samuels nailed a nifty reverse lay-up off a spin move to send Villanova into the locker room with a 3 point lead.
Coming out of the half, the ‘Cats were stroking it - hitting three straight shots to stretch the lead to 7 and force Seton Hall head coach Kevin Williard to call a time out just 3 minutes into the second frame. Just three minutes later, the ‘Cats went on a 8-0 scoring run, including triples by Jermaine Samuels and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, to stretch the lead to 14 and force another Seton Hall timeout. However, as the Wildcats are oft to do, the ‘Cats quickly surrendered two open threes to Sandro Mamukelashvili and Myles Powell and were forced to call their own timeout. Sigh.
Villanova protected an 8-10 point lead until a couple of lackadaisical switches and over-helping on defense led to some wide (and I mean WIDE) open triples for the Pirates, including two straight from Shavar Reynolds. The game proceeded somewhat choppily from there with a number of sloppy plays, whistles, and free throws. With just over 6 minutes left, the Wildcats were nursing a 6-point lead.
The final 30 seconds of the game ticked away over what felt like 45 minutes with Villanova missing 5 of its final 6 free throws. With just over 20 seconds left, Sandro Mamukelashvili nailed a three to cut the ‘Nova lead to just 3. The teams traded buckets before Savar Reynolds drained two free throws to make it a one-point game. However, a final free throw from Jermaine Samuels helped the ‘Cats escape with a hard-earned two point victory.
In his final game in front of the Seton Hall faithful, Myles Powell put up 14 points on 5-8 shooting from the field in what was a relatively quiet game for the senior. Quincy McKnight and Sandro Mamukelashvili combined for 36 points with Mamu going 3-4 from deep. Savar Reynolds chipped in an additional 12 for the Pirates
As for the Wildcats, Saddiq Bey led the way with 20 points. After getting off to a bit of a slow start, the sophomore went on a tear - shooting 7-13 from the field. Justin Moore, evincing the ice-in-his-veins attitude that will make him a Villanova legend by the time he leaves campus, poured in 19 points, going 5-8 from three. The freshman hit a number of big shots in big moments but, as freshman do, made a couple of bad turnovers as Villanova fought to protect its lead. Jermaine Samuels, looking for a little consistency on offense, netted 19 big points despite shooting an icy 2-7 from deep.
Collin Gillespie took a step in the right direction, posting 12 points on 5-12 shooting. However, the junior continued to struggle from beyond the arc, hitting just 2 of his 7 attempts.
Overall, this, in my opinion, is the most impressive victory for the Wildcats this year (yes, I know we beat #1 Kansas and Creighton on the road). However, this was a total and complete gut check game - a game in front of a sold-out, emotional, raucous, and hostile crowd eager to make Villanova pay for its past success - success experienced by very few of Villanova’s current players.
This was a game that has been marketed as Seton Hall’s coronation game for the last two months, the final home game for New Jersey’s favorite son, and a chance for the Pirates to end a 27 year conference title drought at home in dramatic fashion - and the Wildcats spoiled it. In excruciating fashion.
We constantly debate the value of in-game experience and an environment like tonight cannot be simulated or even replicated during a season. Win or lose, Villanova was going to be heckled from tip to whistle - and that’s a good thing heading into the postseason. It’s valuable to have Justin Moore, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Saddiq Bey (who is still just a sophomore) log meaningful minutes in tough environments as we wrap up this regular season.
The weaknesses of the current squad have been debated ad nauseam for months. However, we can say that the mental make-up of this team is solid. They have shown, time and time again, an unwillingness to quit and, even when shots aren’t falling, they have shown up when called upon. We don’t always win - we know that - but we could always win - like we did today. Sometimes, that’s all you need in March
The Wildcats will wrap up the regular season at Georgetown on Saturday while the Pirates will head to #11 Creighton. The Big East Tournament will tip off Wednesday from Madison Square Garden.