by Josh Adams, @NCAAHoopsDigest
The usually jovial Angel Delgado stared into space at his locker after Friday Night’s Big East Semifinal, eyes red with tears while talking quietly with reporters and coaches. He could not believe he missed a layup at the buzzer that would’ve sent Seton Hall into overtime against the best team in the nation. This mountain of a man with a million dollar smile couldn’t hide how he felt . He was crestfallen.
Both Seton Hall and Villanova had momentum going into Friday’s Big East Semifinal. Seton Hall, winners of five straight Big East games, dispatched Marquette yesterday afternoon behind Delgado’s epic near triple-double. VIllanova set both program and Big East Tournament single game records with their 108-67 drubbing of St. John’s. With Kansas losing to TCU in the Big 12 Tournament, the Wildcats are poised to become the #1 team in the nation. Tonight, it wouldn’t have mattered if a Big East Championship berth was on the line or if these two teams were playing a pickup game in a church parking lot. The effort would’ve been the same. These two programs have had some epic Big East Tournament battles and added another one that will be shown on tournament highlight reels for years. It came down to the 2017 Big East Player of the Year Josh Hart scoring the go-ahead basket in the final minute to give Villanova the 55-53 win.
Before a record crowd of 19,812 at Madison Square Garden, both teams made their fans proud by giving them an old-fashioned physical game that hearkened back to the early days of the conference. Both teams played excellent defense with Seton Hall holding the Wildcats and their all-world guards Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson to 26% shooting from the field in the first half. Villanova in turn didn’t let Delgado establish a presence early in the paint but Pirates freshman Myles Powell hit a couple three pointers early and the Pirates went up by eleven midway through the first half. The Wildcats went on a mini-run towards the end of the first half to cut the Seton Hall lead to 7, 27-20.
Everyone in the crowd knew a Villanova run was imminent and the Wildcats put together that run and took their first lead of the game with 9:18 left in the second half. From then on it was a heavyweight fight between the two rivals that had the sellout crowd on it’s feet for the rest of the contest. Each team absorbed the other team’s best punches as baskets were traded down the stretch. Neither team could put the other away and with Seton Hall up by one, Hart swooped in on a Jenkins miss with a rebound and a layup while getting fouled to put Villanova up two after he converted the free throw. The Pirates had nine seconds left to tie or win the game and they worked the ball into Delgado who missed an easy layup at the buzzer. As Delgado crumpled to the floor after his miss, Hart and his Wildcats teammates surrounded him and offered him a hand-up in a show of sportsmanship.
The respect between the two programs was evident in the postgame press conference. Asked what he told Delgado after the game, Hart answered, “I told Angel you’re a heck of a player and just keep going.” Hart added, “He’s got a bright future.”
Hart led the Wildcats with 19 points. The senior who grew up in Big East country has an appreciation for the conference that goes beyond being a player, he’s clearly a lifelong fan of the Big East. Asked about reaching his third conference final, Hart smiled and said, “It’s amazing, You grow up watching the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden. There’s so much history in this tournament and to be in three straight finals is amazing.”
That doesn’t mean that Hart’s Big East story is over. The Wildcats face a tough Creighton team in the Big East Final on Saturday night. With a win, Villanova will be the number one overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and could very well return to the Garden with a trip to the Final Four on the line in the East Regional. A second straight national championship is certainly possible for this year’s Wildcats team. That said, you don’t raise a banner for the sportsmanship Hart and his teammates showed Delgado tonight. It’s just what great championship teams do.