NEW YORK – There are always points, but rarely style points, in a Big East tournament championship game. The league has never worked that way, and it stayed true to form Saturday night as Villanova outscrapped Seton Hall at the end for a league-record third straight title.
The Wildcats appeared to have control with a nine-point lead and three minutes to play, but control is fleeting in this setting. A turnover here and there, a missed shot or two, and a brief run by the opponent will make the thing go out of control very quickly.
That’s just what happened, and before Villanova could put on their victory hats and cut down the nets after the 74-72 final, the Wildcats had to survive a last-gasp lob attempt that would have sent the game to overtime.
“When we play them, it becomes a rock fight,” coach Jay Wright said of the finals matchup against a team that can match Villanova’s speed and physicality. “We really do genuinely relish the opportunity to play in this environment, this building, and this league. It means a lot to get these grind-it-out kind of games.”
Villanova, the league’s top seed, actually had the false appearance of control several times during the game, but each of those advantages disappeared. When they fashioned a significant lead in the second half, they went back to the offensive formulas that have worked well in the past.
The Wildcats took almost nothing except three-point attempts for a long stretch, and when they did work their way inside and to the foul line, they capitalized on those opportunities.
After making just four three-point shots in the first half, Villanova nearly doubled that in the second half. And after shooting just 4-for-9 from the free-throw line, the Wildcats made 13 straight in the second half to go up by six points, 72-66, with less than two minutes to play. They needed every one of them.
Some of the inability to hold the leads was because Villanova went through spells of poor execution, some because Seton Hall never cracked, and some just because it was the Big East final in Madison Square Garden.
“It’s those three. This place is crazy. It doesn’t let you get out of a game,” Wright said. “Crazy things happen here. And Seton Hall, they’ve been down in a lot of games, but they never go away. And we did try to lose that by doing some crazy things at the end. So, it was a combination.”
In the end, the Wildcats had just enough, however. They were outscored, 13-6, in the final three minutes, but time eventually proved to be on their side. When Seton Hall’s inbound lob with 0.4 seconds hit the backboard and bounced away, the crowd roared as never before, half in celebration, half in pain.
The intensity of the Garden, which had been consistent since the four quarterfinal games on Thursday, was a factor all Saturday night for the championship game. Maybe it was even amped up by the way the semifinal round played out on Friday, with Villanova mounting a late regulation comeback before beating Xavier in overtime, and Seton Hall surviving a contentious, foul-laden late evening against Marquette.
Whatever the reason, the conclusion of the 40th Big East tournament – and the 37th consecutive in New York – lived up to the hype of the World’s Most Famous Arena, and the history of a league that has always majored in competitiveness even when it minored in overall talent.
The sellout crowd and the prime-time atmosphere was a great way to coronate the conference season for Villanova, but Wright said it can also set up a team for a letdown when the NCAA Tournament begins later this week. The next game is the most important of the season in some ways, but after shining under the lights of Manhattan it might not seem that way.
“There’s pressure in these games here, and there’s intensity in these games here at the Garden that’s like nowhere else,” Wright said. “Believe it or not, sometimes when you go to a first-round NCAA game after playing here in a championship game, it’s actually a downer, and that has affected us in the past. You get in a first-round game, it’s quiet, it’s in the middle of the day, and you were just in the greatest environment in basketball ever.”
There are worse problems for a college coach to have than being a higher seed in an opening-round NCAA tournament game, of course, but the Wildcats don’t leave much to chance in preparation. It will be mentioned that the Thursday or Friday opener won’t match the electricity of the Big East final, just so the players who haven’t experienced that will be ready.
One tournament is out of the way, and the next is right behind it. So far, so good for Villanova, but their best has to be yet to come.