It was typical Villanova-Seton Hall stuff, a survival test, with the added factor of neither team being at full strength due to COVID-19.
Because it was Villanova that survived, 73-67, after some late throws at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., you could point to this play or that as decisive. A late Justin Moore block. Some hustle plays by Brandon Slater. Any of the 21 points scored by Collin Gillespie before he fouled out. What Jermaine Samuels did that added up to a double-double, 11 points and 11 rebounds.
You can’t downplay the stakes. Seton Hall, hit hardest by the pandemic, came in ranked 15th nationally but leaves 0-2 in the Big East. Villanova, ranked 22nd, now can start to put December’s downturn behind after a second straight win over a ranked Big East team, improving the Wildcats to 2-1 in the Big East and 9-4 overall.
Big picture … maybe the biggest moment of the game came just a couple of minutes in. Bryan Antoine to the scorer’s table. Because Caleb Daniels was out with COVID-19, Antoine assumed the sixth-starter role Jay Wright likes to utilize.
Antoine’s numbers were nothing fancy. Seven points and four rebounds in 16 minutes. A quick three-point make followed by some misses. Some free throws hit. A late foul on a Seton Hall three-pointer he’d prefer to not have made.
The day before, asked about Antoine’s progress back from a patella tendon injury, Wright had said, “I think he’s probably as healthy as he’s ever been. Now, it’s just a matter of getting him incorporated.”
After Saturday’s win, Wright said, “I think he was a great example of what I try to explain to people. He’s coming back and he’s practicing, but he needs to play in games.”
If you remember the 2021 NCAA Tournament, having Antoine on the court, especially at the defensive end, was key to getting to the Sweet 16. Without him, Villanova’s depth just hasn’t been there. That’s been the early-season storyline.
“I feel like I just add that extra body, another whole piece,” Antoine said after Saturday’s game.
So that’s it? … All is right in the Villanova world? Not so fast.
If you watched Saturday, you probably noticed a combination of not having a game since Dec. 21, facing a top defensive outfit, and missing a key guard, all adding up to 11 turnovers in the first 15 minutes for Villanova, which lost an early 18-12 lead to a 13-2 Pirates run. At that point, Seton Hall had a 12-3 advantage in points off turnovers, converting a couple into quick three-pointers.
Daniels, in a groove lately, had contracted COVID-19 while home for Christmas, according to Wright.
“He never got in any contact with anybody here,” Wright had noted the day before, saying there would be more caution with Daniels, who showed no real symptoms, but was out for almost five months in the off season after being diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, after an earlier COVID-19 diagnosis.
If there’s another guy used to adversity, it’s Bryan Antoine.
“Everyone is in awe of him,” Wright said, referring to how “strong-minded” Antoine has been, through major shoulder surgery, a knee injury, this latest injury. Remember, this is a player who was tagged coming in as a star. Still could happen. But to see him fight to be on the court as a glue guy, his coach is saying that gets extra points.
“It’s incredible,’’ Wright said.
Not that Villanova’s coach was going to let that late foul go.
“He just hasn’t been in games,” Wright said.
“Getting back into the swing of what Coach asks for,” Antoine said, when asked about his biggest hurdle. “Having been out three, four months. Gaining that back is a heavy task.”
Seeing freshman Jordan Longino get minutes during meaningful times in a meaningful game also is to be noted for the future. Despite the absence of Daniels, Villanova actually was the deeper team, since Seton Hall only had eight players available, and was missing a couple of key big men -- 7-foot-2 Ike Obiagu and top rebounder Tyrese Samuel.
If you’re still looking big picture, Seton Hall, even missing such quality players, showed it will be reckoned with. Bryce Aiken still is a handful, like he always has been, in the Ivy League or the Big East, finishing with with 22 points. Jamir Harris dropped four three-pointers on Villanova and a fifth, shot when he was open late, would have given Seton Hall the lead back. This was all up for grabs to the last minute.
Biggest picture, a guy who had played seven minutes this season and had taken no shots before Saturday is getting back in the fold.
“It felt great,” Antoine said.
He amended that statement.
“Actually, it felt amazing,” he said.