NEW YORK - For yet another year, Villanova is going home from the Big East tournament early.
The No. 1 seed Wildcats fell to No. 8 seed Seton Hall in the quarterfinals, 64-63, on Sterling Gibbs' buzzer-beater from just inside the three-point arc.
It was a dramatic end to a classic afternoon at Madison Square Garden. The crowd took a while to fill in because of train delays outside Manhattan, but as the game came down the stretch the arena was rocking like it always has.
The Wildcats fans who got in late didn't miss much. Villanova was surprisingly listless for the game's first 35 minutes. Seton Hall took a 36-26 lead into the locker room at halftime, and led by 44-31 with just over 14 minutes to go.
"We were getting shots we wanted, we were getting to the free throw line, we missed free throws, we missed shots we normally make," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "But good teams find a way to win anyway."
That the Wildcats almost did so came down to one of the points Wright made in that quote. Despite shooting just 7-for-26 from the field and 1-for-8 from three-point range in the first half, Villanova was able to pound the ball inside a lot. That led to 18 free throw attempts, and Seton Hall started to show signs of strain because of it.
Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins took advantage, sparking a 16-0 run after Seton Hall took that 44-31 lead. With 8:03 remaining, Hilliard nailed a three-pointer to put the Wildcats ahead, 47-44.
The rest of the game saw five ties, seven lead changes, and zero mentions of the fact that Syracuse and Connecticut weren't around anymore.
Villanova's final lead came with seven seconds to go, as Hilliard hit a runner in the lane to put the Wildcats up 63-62. Seton Hall inbounded the ball, crossed midcourt and called timeout with three seconds left. That gave coach Ralph Williard time to set up a play for Gibbs to score. Coach and player delivered.
"That's what tournament time is all about," Wright said afterward. "They made a great play, give them credit."
Josh Hart led Villanova in scoring from the bench with 18 points, and also had eight rebounds. Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston scored 11 points each, with Hilliard scoring all of his after halftime.
Pinkston could have had quite a few more points, but he made just three of his 10 free throw attempts. The loss certainly shouldn't be just put on him, because Villanova's first-half struggles were team-wide. They shot just 7-for-26 from the field, and 1-for-8 from three-point range. Still, those misses from the charity stripe stand out.
Seton Hall's Eugene Teague led all scorers with 19 points, and pulled down 12 rebounds. Patrik Auda added 13 points, all during Seton Hall's dominant first half.
The loss deals a significant blow to the Wildcats' hopes of gaining a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But as the Big East's regular season champions, they could still gain a much-coveted high seed in the East Region - which would get them back to Madison Square Garden for the regional semifinals if they advance that far.
Wright, though, remains unconcerned about his team's NCAA tournament seed or where it plays. He made the point when the regular season ended, and reiterated it again Thursday.
"You've all heard me say this before - this was not about 1-seeds [or] 2 seeds," he said. "Any of that stuff in the NCAA tournament, I don't really care about... We'll play anybody anywhere."
Of greater consequence to Wright is the Big East tournament in and of itself. Villanova's regular-season title was its first since 1982, but the Wildcats haven't won the conference tournament since 1995, when Steve Lappas was in charge. It is the only Big East tournament in program history, and Wright craves one to call his own.
'Winning the Big East tournament would mean more to us than a [NCAA tournament] 1-seed," Wright said. "We want to be here until Saturday. I think we're most disappointed about that."
Wright is well aware that the Wildcats haven't been able to stay in New York until Saturday since 1997, the last year they made the championship game. Villanova hasn't won two games in a single Big East tournament since 2004, when they made the semifinals as the No. 11 seed. Since then, they've won one and lost one five times, and have lost their tournament debut four times.
Of course, those numbers don't tell the whole story, because of the byes and double-byes when the Big East was bigger. But the goal of being at the Garden on Saturday night still remains elusive.
Now Wright and his players turn their focus to Selection Sunday, as they wait to find out where they'll be spending the rest of March.
As senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono succinctly noted, there's no margin for error anymore.
"We have to bring it right from the start," he said. "We can't have Coach call a quick timeout. We have to bring it."
The Langhorne native was all too aware that a little more of that spirit Thursday would likely have made a lot of difference.
I hosted a live chat during the game. Check out the transcript below for all the details on how the late drama unfolded.