by Josh Adams
Newark, NJ- It’s one of the oldest cliches’ in sports but the saying, “You can throw out the record-books” always applies when Seton Hall and Villanova suit up and go into battle. Injuries? Meh.. Controversial calls? Meh… Have five guys wearing a Seton Hall uniform and five guys wearing a Villanova uniform and put them on a basketball court and you’ll be entertained. That was true on Wednesday night as 13,711 fans packed the Prudential Center to the rafters as the Wildcats took everything an injury-riddled Seton Hall team could throw at them and won by the slimmest of margins, 69-68. It was another classic game between two of the original Big East Conference teams.
The Pirates were without their leading scorer, Desi Rodriguez, who was sidelined with a sprained ankle suffered on a wet floor last week in Providence. On top of that, backup point guard Jordan Walker was in street clothes as a thumb injury regulated him to a cheerleader tonight. Villanova came into Newark on Wednesday looking to right the ship after an overtime loss at Creighton last Saturday. The atmosphere was charged from the beginning as the Pirates opened up the second deck of the Prudential Center (a rarity) as fans from both teams never sat from the opening tip until the final horn.
Over 20 NBA scouts (including Sacramento Kings GM Vlade Divac) were in the building to see Wildcats forward Mikal Bridges and he did not disappoint. The junior came out fast and hit some jumpers to give Villanova the early lead. Bridges is a matchup nightmare as he can play both the wing and at the four, something Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard was aware of and knew it would be hard to stop. “He does all the little things and he causes a lot of mismatches”, said Willard about Bridges after the game.
Both teams went ice cold from the field in the middle of the first half and it carried into halftime as the Wildcats held an almost comically low scoring 24-18 lead at the half. The fans that expected to see high-powered octane offense were instead seeing a game that resembled a YMCA pickup game with plenty of shooting and not a whole lot of converting.
Seton Hall didn’t snap out of their offensive funk after the half and the Wildcats quickly capitalized on that by extending their lead to 11 with thirteen minutes left in the game. As things looked dire for the home team, they called on guard Myles Powell to be the catalyst in getting the Pirates back into the contest. He did not disappoint in the role. Powell scored 8 straight points to bring Seton Hall within three. At that point, neither team could extend a lead past four points as they had four lead changes within the last seven minutes. As the crowd threatened to blow the roof off the building in the last ninety seconds of the game, it came down to converting at the free throw line. Pirates guard Khadeen Carrington had a chance to give the Pirates the lead with eleven seconds left in regulation but could only convert one out of two shots from the free throw stripe. The Wildcats had the opportunity to win the game but Donte DiVincenzo’s three pointer wasn’t close at the buzzer and the game went into overtime.
The go-to guy on the Wildcats is Jalen Brunson. He was generally kept in check by a stout Seton Hall defense but in overtime, he bumped his game up to All-American level as he hit two jumpers in the extra period and hit the key free throws down the stretch that gave the Wildcats the lead for good. The Pirates made it interesting until the final buzzer. They gave Villanova fits while in-bounding the ball and a couple of calls that were borderline could have changed the outcome. In the end, as the Pirates resembled the Walking Dead with both Ish Sanogo and Myles Cale suffering injuries late in the game, the Wildcats were just a point better, 69-68.
“I’m really proud of the way the guys played tonight.”, said Willard after the game. “I hate losing but when you go out and leave it all out on the floor like these guys did, I thought both teams should be proud.”
Carrington had 23 points for the Pirates (20-10, 9-8) as they try to heal before welcoming Butler to the Prudential Center on Saturday in what will be sure to be an emotional senior night.
Villanova(26-4, 13-4) was led by Bridges 23 points while Brunson contributed 14 in the winning effort. The Wildcats host Georgetown in their regular season finale on Saturday.
“That was an old fashioned rock fight.”, said Wildcats coach Jay Wright, ” I’m very impressed with Seton Hall and to be playing without one their best players in the league and compete like that? They were outstanding and when they get Desi back that’s one hell of a team.”
It was one hell of a game and we can only hope that we can see these two teams next week play each other at full strength in the Big East Tournament.