Ford: Wildcats survive their own play

NOVA11
Villanova’s Josh Hart consoles Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado, left, after his shot didn’t go in at the end of Villanova's 55-53 against the Pirates in Friday's Big East tournament semifinal at Madison Square Garden.

NEW YORK - When the game ended and Seton Hall forward Angel Delgado slumped to the floor, a victim of some cruel twists at the finish of the Big East conference tournament semifinal game against Villanova, it was Josh Hart of the Wildcats who leaned down to comfort him.

"I've got so much respect for that program. We've had some battles over the last four years," Hart said.

There have been bigger battles perhaps, like Seton Hall's tournament title win a year ago, but none more intense than Friday night's, which was won 55-53 by Villanova in a game that made up in passion what it lacked in artistry.

"We got outplayed tonight but found a way to win at the end. Great players made plays," coach Jay Wright said. "Their game plan was better. That's on me. It wasn't about great execution or a good game plan. This was purely about talented players."

It's always easy to explain away an ugly game because of the setting, the history, the intent of the officials to let the players decide things, and that's part of what happened Friday night. Another part, however, was this was just an ugly game, and Villanova won despite not playing very well. The Wildcats missed open shots that normally fall. They were decent on defense throughout but never found an offensive rhythm.

"The plays we ran didn't work," Wright said.

When the plays didn't work, the players did, and none more than guards Jalen Brunson and Hart, who combined to score the final 20 points of the game. Most of it was individual effort, going one-on-one or recognizing an opportunity before anyone else on the court saw it.

"We weren't sharp, and Coach got after us [at halftime). We just kept going at it," Brunson said.

There will probably be other games like this before the postseason ends for the Wildcats. No team gets a clean ride through conference play and then the NCAA play beyond. A night will arrive when the shots aren't going down, and the other team gains confidence, and that's the time when players decide things on their own.

"It's nice to know you can gut it out when you're not playing well. That's a good feeling," Wright said.

The first half was very nearly a flashback to the conference final a year ago when Villanova lost for the only time in the 2015-16 postseason, also to Seton Hall. In that game, the Wildcats shot poorly in the opening half, fell behind by 11 points before rallying but still suffered the narrow loss.

This time around, against a Seton Hall team they beat by a combined 52 points in two regular-season games, the Wildcats shot even worse to begin the game. They made just 7 of 26 attempts (26.9 percent) in the first half, including 3 of 13 three-point attempts.

The Pirates did fashion an 11-point lead with just less than five minutes left in the half, but the margin was just seven at the break, 27-20, and Villanova was fortunate to only trail by that many. The Wildcats had seven turnovers as well in the half but were bailed out by some jittery play from Seton Hall just before the break.

Villanova came out shooting better in the second half, but so did Seton Hall, and the deficit was still five points when Brunson and Hart took over the scoring.

"Jalen and Josh just individually made great plays," Wright said. "The plays Jalen made, we ran plays. They didn't work. Seton Hall defended them, and then Jay went and made an individual play."

Brunson spun into the lane to score on little soft jumpers and floaters from the baseline, always fighting a double-team near the basket, always fighting the shot clock. But in the end, it was Hart who made the play of the game, just seconds after Delgado was called for traveling on a spin move that could have cost Seton Hall a three-point play and a stranglehold on the game.

The Wildcats set up on the halfcourt, trailing by one with just than 20 seconds left, and the ball went to Kris Jenkins, who was having a terrible shooting night. Still, he was all alone on the perimeter and got the ball in rhythm and shot. You could have forgiven Hart for studying the circumstance and making sure he would be able to get back on defense. Instead, he read the shot, crashed the rim and somehow got through for the rebound, the follow and the foul that secured the win.

"I kicked it to Kris. I think he was surprised he was so open," Hart said. "I saw him shoot it. I saw he put a little too much mustard on it, and I was like, 'You know what? Just go get it.' "

That's what Villanova did last night when the game was not turning out as planned. They just went and got it, anyway. Great teams can do that, even though great teams don't have to very often.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports