By Josh Adams
Newark- It didn’t look like downtown Newark in the parking lots around the Prudential Center before the Seton Hall-Villanova game on Saturday afternoon. It looked like a parking lot in the Meadowlands before a Giants-Eagles game.
Grills were out and the smell of hamburgers was in the air. Plenty of red solo cups were filled with beer and wine as both fan-bases tailgated before the rare afternoon tilt between the two I-95 rivals. Inside, 16,114 fans filed in as there was much to be determined for Seton Hall. Pending on a win or a loss today for the Pirates, they could be seeded as high as #3 or as low as #8 for the Big East Tournament. If that wasn’t enough to light a fire under the team and the Pirate faithful, a win today would virtually guarantee them a bid in the NCAA Tournament without having to travel to Dayton and the play-in game. So much was on the line for the Pirates today against their old foe. It just felt like a playoff game, that it was just special to be in the building for an event like this.
Boy, did everyone get their money’s worth.
There were times during Seton Hall’s win over Villanova that the building was as loud as a 747 taking off from nearby Newark Airport. As the Pirates got off to a fast start an already energized crowd kicked into a new gear as Seton Hall jumped out to a 10-5 lead before the first media timeout. It was Myles Powell who got the Pirates on the board first, hitting his first three point attempt and setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
If this game had a theme it would be timely turnovers. The name of the game for Seton Hall today was getting Villanova off of their usual timing with pressing the ball-handlers and trapping Wildcats players when they picked up their dribble. As Seton Hall started to extend their lead towards the end of the first half, role players like Jared Rhoden started hitting threes while forward Sandro Mamukelashvili gobbled up boards like reporters eating chicken fingers at a press-room buffet. All this while starting point guard Quincy McKnight sat for an extended period of time with foul trouble in the half. Seton Hall looked like they would be up by double digits at halftime but Villanova’s Eric Paschall hit a three to end the half to cut the Pirates lead to nine.
Big East fans know that no lead against Villanova is safe and Jay Wright can make adjustments to his game plan better than most coaches in the country. The question really wasn’t would Villanova make a run, but when they did, could Seton Hall withstand it and counter it? That run came at the 15:48 mark in the second half as Seton Hall’s 12 point lead started to shrink quickly courtesy of some 50/50 foul calls going the Wildcats. They trimmed the lead to 4 but couldn’t get any closer as consecutive three pointers by Rhoden and Myles Cale put the Pirates back up by double digits. The Wildcats pulled a zombie act in the end of the game with Seton Hall unable to put them away, as Villanova briefly was within one with 3:57 left in the game. The Seton Hall fans nervous energy could’ve powered lower Manhattan for a day. It was Cale who came through with a three pointer with 1:27 left in the game that iced the contest for the Pirates. For the first time since the Big East Championship in 2016, Seton Hall beat Villanova, 79-75, and earned themselves a trip to the NCAA Tournament when they were picked by most prognosticators to finish 8th in the Big East Preseason Poll. This will be their fourth time in a row going to the Big Dance, a feat not matched since 1991-94. Fans and players mingled and celebrated as the team went into the crowd to greet their former coach Shaheen Holloway.
Powell had 20 points and Cale had 19. Mamukelashvili had a double-double with 12 points and 18 rebounds. Senior Mike Nzei had 10 points to close out his home career with the Pirates.
When asked about how tough Seton Hall (18-12, 9-9) would be in the NCAA Tournament, Villanova (22-9, 13-5) Coach Jay Wright said, “They can beat anybody. You know why? They’ve done it. They beat us, Marquette, Kentucky and Maryland”
Powell talked with me about getting off to a fast start against Villanova. “We knew we had to go out there and throw the first punch.”, said Powell, “We had to make a statement. I was telling my guys, Villanova is good. They’ve won the national championship already. They’re heads are up high. They beat us by 30 points. Let’s go out and do it.”
Well consider it a statement made for Seton Hall. A team nobody thought would be anywhere close to competing in the conference much less have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. Come Selection Sunday, the question will be where Seton Hall will be playing their first round opponent. It’s a credit to a program and a coach that saw something no one else did in this year’s team. Something you can’t measure. Heart.