NEWARK, N.J. – Villanova took the week off from competition before its regular-season finale Saturday against Seton Hall, looking to capture the outright Big East championship without help.
Unfortunately for the 23rd-ranked Wildcats, they didn’t appear to flip the switch until well after the game started, falling into an early hole and never recovering. Carried by their three-point shooting and the deafening cheers of 16,114 at Prudential Center, the Pirates held on for a 79-75 victory.
Still, the 'Cats (22-9, 13-5) ended the day winning their fifth conference title in the last six years after Georgetown upset Marquette, 86-84. Villanova is the No. 1 seed for the Big East tournament and will play its first game at noon Thursday at Madison Square Garden against the winner of a first-round game between No. 8 Providence and No. 9 Butler.
The Wildcats never led, trailing, 5-0, in the opening three minutes and playing uphill the rest of the way. The Pirates (18-12, 9-9), showing a sense of desperation that helped them likely secure an NCAA Tournament berth, led by 14 in the first half and 16 early in the second.
Villanova coach Jay Wright said his team really needed the seven-day break following last Saturday’s win over Butler, and thought it helped.
“I didn’t think we played without energy,” he said. “We played without precision and real competitiveness early. I thought the week off was really good for us. We had a couple of really good practices Thursday and Friday. But I just think Seton Hall was more dialed in. They were just a little bit more prepared mentally and physically.
“I’m disappointed in us as a staff a little bit. We did not start the game the way we should coming into this environment against a team that was playing that well.”
With the Wildcats getting no points from their bench, every starter finished in double figures, led by Collin Gillespie with 22 points, Phil Booth with 16 and Eric Paschall with 14. Myles Powell led Seton Hall with 20 points and Myles Cale added 19, and the pair combined for 10 of the Pirates’ 13 threes.
If not for Gillespie, who scored 13 straight points in a five-minute stretch of the first half, the Wildcats would have had little chance. Still, Seton Hall appeared ready to break the game open early in the second half when Cale’s three upped its advantage to 44-28.
The Cats, who shot 56 percent in the second half, responded with a 13-0 run to make it 44-41. The Pirates got their margin back to 11, but Villanova then started to hit from three-point land, deep shots by Jermaine Samuels, Saddiq Bey, Booth, and Gillespie that narrowed the gap to 63-61 with 6:39 remaining.
The Wildcats had a chance to tie or take the lead on their next possession, but Paschall’s pass was stolen by Powell. They never got another chance to go in front. They drew within one point twice, the final time at 66-65 following two free throws by Gillespie with 3:57 to play, but Seton Hall scored on the ensuing possession each time.
“We just didn’t come out with energy,” Paschall said. “We just have to learn from it. We are a young group but at this time of year, we’re not really young anymore. We’ve played a whole season. We’ve got to keep getting better. I feel like they definitely played harder than us.”
It was quite a turnaround from the teams’ first meeting, an 80-52 ‘Nova romp on Jan. 27 at Wells Fargo Center. The Wildcats, who are entering the Big East tournament off a defeat for the first time since 2012, need to step up or else it will be a short stay at the Garden.
“I’m just concerned about how we’re playing right now,” Wright said. “We’ve been inconsistent all year. We had a bad stretch with a couple of good games. We don’t want to be in a bad stretch right now. We’ve got to get ourselves right.”