It’s one of the top rivalries, if not the best rivalry, in the Big East. Like all good rival showdowns, Saturday’s matinee matchup between Villanova and Seton Hall had its exciting moments, momentum swings and a finish that came down to the wire.
In the end, the Wildcats defeated the visiting Pirates, 73-67, at the Wells Fargo Center.
Collin Gillespie hit Brandon Slater with a pass for the go-ahead basket with 1:26 remaining. From there, the ‘Cats stepped it up on defense, and Gillespie came up with a crucial offensive rebound with 34 seconds left, which eventually forced the Pirates to play the fouling game with time winding down.
Justin Moore went 4-for-4 from the free throw line in the final 20 seconds to preserve the lead and ice the game for the ‘Cats.
“Collin and Justin aren’t 100%, they just purely gutted it out today,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “It was just a great team effort. I’m proud of the guys.
“Collin was in my office yesterday and we had a talk. I told him, ‘you’re amazing, dude. I’m going to be telling stories about you forever.’ These are the stories we love to tell. ... And coming into this game, you could see he was struggling early. I know he’s not close to 100%, but making those plays at the end, that’s what we take pride in. That’s what guys before him have done and he continues that tradition.”
Seton Hall’s Kadary Richmond drove inside and finished with a layup to temporarily give the Pirates a 65-64 lead, with 2:28 remaining. That would be the last made shot the Pirates would make, outside of a pair of Tray Jackson free throws that helped Seton Hall tie it at 67 with 1:54 to go.
Seton Hall missed its final shots in the closing minutes, and Villanova drew a couple of key charges late.
The Pirates led for most of the game, but the ‘Cats weren’t too far behind. It was a back-and-forth battle through the second half.
“They made two huge plays on the offensive glass,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “I thought we did a good job scrambling to get them to take tough shots at the end, but give them credit. They made two huge offensive rebounds.
“I think it is (the best rivalry). Just look over the last seven years, games we’ve had against each other have been a battle. I talk about how much respect I have for Gillespie and Samuels, and for what they’ve done for the league.”
The ‘Cats were able to buckle down defensively in the second half, especially at the three-point line.
Seton Hall torched Villanova from the perimeter to start, even making contested shots. The Pirates shot 7-for-14 from long range, building a 32-29 lead at the half.
“I didn’t think we played horribly,” Wright said of the first half. “They were playing really well, and I thought we played okay. We just felt like this was going to be a grind, a Big East Seton Hall-Villanova game.”
It certainly was a grind. The Wildcats battled back to take a 45-41 lead early in the second half, only for Seton Hall to get back in front with an 11-0 scoring surge.
Villanova, who didn’t trail by more than seven points for the entire game, held firm and found opportunities in the paint. Once again, the ‘Cats outscored their foes in the interior, 32-20.
“We’re trying to get a balance offensively,” Wright said. “We haven’t been able to get into a rhythm offensively this year. I don’t know what it is. We’ve had some guys out of practice and we haven’t found that. We’ll go through spurts where we’re making threes or spurts where we’re scoring inside.”
Five different Wildcats scored in double figures. Moore had 14 of his team-high 16 points in the second half, adding seven rebounds, three steals and three assists. Samuels also had 16 points and went 6-for-6 from inside the arc. Gillespie had 10 points, five boards and four assists. Slater added 10 points, four offensive rebounds, one block and a steal. Eric Dixon also had 10 points, with six boards.
For Seton Hall, Richmond and Jackson led the way with 16 points apiece. Myles Cale finished with 11 points. Alexis Yetna had six points and 15 rebounds. Jared Rhoden was held to eight points on 4-of-12 shooting.
The Pirates played without Bryce Aiken, who tallied a game-high 22 points in their previous meeting on Jan. 1.
“Give Seton Hall a ton of credit, they have played without Bryce Aiken and how they just grow and improved,” Wright said. “I think they can beat anybody in the country. I think they are one of the top teams in the country. They came in here, executed and were great — we’re not surprised.”
Villanova improves to 19-6 overall and 12-3 in Big East play. The Wildcats will now prepare for their first meeting with Providence, when they take a trip to the Dunkin Donuts Center on Tuesday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET.