NEWARK, N.J. — Villanova kept missing free throws, and Seton Hall kept chipping away at the Wildcats’ lead, and the record attendance of 16,863 at Prudential Center was smelling a comeback from a 10-point deficit Wednesday night that would have given the Pirates the outright Big East regular season championship.
The 14th-ranked Wildcats made only 4-of-11 free-throw attempts in the final 1 minute, 3 seconds, but that happened to be barely enough in a 79-77 over the No. 8 Pirates that kept the visitors alive in the hunt for at least a share of their sixth Big East title in the last seven years.
Villanova (23-7, 12-5) needs a win Saturday at Georgetown and a Creighton win at home over Seton Hall (22-7, 13-4) on the same day to create a three-way tie at the top.
The Wildcats led by as many as 14 points in the second half, with runs of 10-0 and 8-0 in the first six minutes. They knocked down five three-pointers in that stretch, with Jermaine Samuels’ trey giving them their largest lead at 53-39.
After Seton Hall pulled to within three on two occasions, the Cats mounted a 7-0 run, with Samuels hitting a driving layup and feeding Collin Gillespie for a layup that made it 73-63 with 2:28 to play.
But Villanova, which entered the game shooting better than 76% from the free-throw line, then had trouble putting the game away. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl missed the front end of a one-and-one. Gillespie, the team’s best free-throw shooter, missed two. Saddiq Bey also bricked a pair in what at the time was a three-point game.
After Shavar Reynolds sank two to draw the Hall within 78-77, Samuels made one of two, and Myles Cale missed a three-point try from the right corner at the buzzer, although there was a question of whether he got it off in time. Nevertheless, the Wildcats escaped.
Bey led the Wildcats with 20 points, and Samuels and Justin Moore each added 19. The Wildcats shot 51.9% from the field and knocked down 13 three-point baskets, with Moore draining five and the other four starters knocking down two each.
Sandro Mamukelashvili led the Pirates with 20 points. But Myles Powell, who was honored on senior night in his last game at home, managed just 5-of-18 from the field and 3-of-10 from three-point range for 14 points, although he did contribute eight assists.
Villanova coach Jay Wright went without a bench for much of the game. The Wildcats’ three reserves saw just 12 minutes, 45 seconds of action in the contest and were held scoreless.
Wright, on his team’s free-throw shooting: “We were 9 of 18 against Providence. Before that, I think we were the No. 1 free-throw shooting team in the Big East. It’s basketball, man. We work on it. We shoot. Sometimes they don’t go in, and you’ve got to be able to do other things. You can’t be afraid to miss. You didn’t make your shots, you took them. We practice it enough. There’s no more we can do. It’s just a game.”
Powell: “Villanova, they’re a top-10 basketball team. They handled our runs. They handled our crowd. Their backs were against the wall. But that’s Villanova basketball. They have a legendary coach. They have good players.”
The pregame activities were a Powell lovefest, and the guard soaked it all in, shedding a few tears during his introduction and extended hug with coach Kevin Willard. A few minutes before the ceremony, Powell gave a big hug to Gillespie, his former Pan Am Games teammate, when the team captains met at center court.