NEW YORK - There are no moments in basketball quite like the long, slow ticks that take place while the ball floats across a suddenly silent arena and there is nothing left that can be done. The game is already decided. It just takes a while to learn the decision.
"We're not going to overreact," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I know it's a big story and it's crushing to us not to be able to keep playing in this tournament, but it happened. We'll deal with it and get it right."
The game was decided on the razor's edge of a buzzer-beating jumper by Sterling Gibbs of Seton Hall. He took an inbounds pass with 3.7 seconds left and Villanova trying to protect a one-point lead. To that point of the game, Gibbs had taken nine shots and missed six of them.
This hasn't been a great year for Seton Hall, or even a good year. The Pirates had injuries and played close games, and it always seemed that in these final moments when the ball was in the air and the game was in doubt, things didn't go well for them.
Gibbs made a little spin move near the foul line, used a subtle forearm to get some space on Darrun Hilliard of Villanova, then stepped back and let the clean jump shot fly. It didn't have to go, but it did, and the Wildcats had lost a bad one, 64-63, at Madison Square Garden.
"Usually, we get through and get it going, and we almost did today," Wright said. "We'll make a positive out of this. We will."
Just as Seton Hall experienced a change of fortune at the end of the game (and at the end of the previous night's opener against Butler), so did Villanova. It would be unfair to the Wildcats to say this has been a lucky season. This is a good team that deserved its high ranking. But there hadn't been too many of these tests.
The three previous losses, to Syracuse and then to Creighton twice in the Big East season, were not nail-biters and their wins, with the exception of three that came in overtime, were usually by comfortable margins.
Recovering from a flat loss to an inferior team will be a new test for Villanova. Their next opponent is unknown, but it will be a lot better overall team than Seton Hall.
"This is a very self-confident group. They weren't wavering in this game. They thought we were coming back. They thought we were winning it," Wright said. "Then the kid hits the shot and they're shocked. I love this team, but you've got to deal with the hand you're dealt and we've got to deal with this."
Seton Hall used a very reasonable philosophy against Villanova, which is often a team that crushes its opponents with very good three-point shooting. The Wildcats take a lot of three-pointers, the most in the Big East, and it is often their weapon of choice.
Pirates coach Kevin Willard opted to array his defense on the deep perimeter and dare the Wildcats to win the game inside the three-point line. The strategy held Villanova to 4-of-19 shooting on three-pointers and Seton Hall was able to play just enough defense elsewhere to get the win.
"They played smart. They gave the inside game to us. They just gave it to us. If we make our shots and free throws, then they have to come off those [three-point] shooters. That's what has happened in other games," Wright said.
Not this one, though. Villanova scored just four points from midrange and, when it did get to the basket area for shots or trips to the line, didn't convert around the rim and didn't make enough free throws.
Those seem more like anomalies than real problems, because Villanova has been more efficient in those areas all season. All it takes is one more bad game, though, and the season ends.
"This could have happened somewhere in the middle of the season and we would have learned from it then," Wright said. "We'll still try to learn from it. You can learn from wins as easy as losing. I'd rather learn from winning."
The Wildcats have learned plenty that way this season and the final exams are still to come. What they learned on Thursday is that, no matter the opponent, there is nothing more treacherous than a ball spinning slowly through the lights, on an unchangeable path to deciding the game. Once you play a game that leaves the ball up there on its own, nothing is certain any longer.