NEW YORK – The Big East Tournament championship game went down to the final four-tenths of a second Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, with Villanova needing to defend one more Seton Hall possession in order to make history.
The Wildcats did. Anthony Nelson’s attempted inbound pass from in front of his bench hit the backboard and bounded away, and Jermaine Samuels swiped the ball away to send the clock to zeros and give the top seed a 74-72 victory over the Pirates and their record third consecutive conference tournament championship.
The buzzer allowed Wildcats fans to exhale and touched off a wild on-court celebration where seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, who are very familiar with kind of success, were swarmed by their younger teammates, some of whom have never experienced this before at the collegiate level.
Paschall led the Cats (25-9) with 17 points. Booth scored 15 of his 16 points in the second half, and freshman Saddiq Bey had 16 points and 10 rebounds.
“Definitely I can appreciate it, I really can,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “You live in the present, right? So what happens now is most important. And it’s really all that matters. So this is really thrilling. There’s more to this one, just watching [Booth and Paschall] and what they did. It’s really rewarding, really special.”
It was really difficult, too, even when the Wildcats took their largest lead on two free throws by Booth that made it 68-59 with 3 minutes to play. The Pirates (20-13), seeded No. 3, weren’t finished. Nelson converted a conventional three-point play and Myles Powell, who led all scorers with 25, hit both ends of a one-and-one to make it 68-64.
The Cats took a pair of six-point leads but Seton Hall had the answer both times. They sank 13 consecutive free throws in the second half before Samuels made one of two with 48.6 seconds left for a 73-68 lead. But Seton Hall scored the next four points and Powell followed up his own miss to close the gap to 73-72 with 15.5 seconds left.
With two free throws on the Cats’ next trip, Paschall made the first and missed the second. After a Seton Hall timeout with 8.9 seconds remaining, Powell missed a three-point try. Booth got the ball after a scramble but was called for traveling, and the Pirates had 0.4 seconds left for the tie or win.
But Nelson’s pass under the basket to Sandro Mamukelashvili hit the backboard and was tipped away by Samuels, and the party began.
Samuels scored all 12 of his points in the second half, including a pair of three-pointers. Seven of the Wildcats’ 11 threes came in the final 20 minutes.
“I’m counting Main-o as an upperclassman because he hangs with [Booth and Paschall] so much,” Wright said. “Main-o is inexperienced but, man, he was great in this tournament.”
Booth, named the tournament’s most outstanding player, gave credit to the underclassmen for keeping their focus with the crowd roaring and Seton Hall always keeping the heat on.
“When they score and make points, that doesn’t really surprise me,” he said. “What we do as a team defensively is more important to us. We’ve got to connect as a group of five on the court. Offensively, they can do a lot of different things, as you saw with Saddiq today, and what Jermaine did. It’s no surprise to any of us.”
Wright praised the underclassmen, too, but he saved his most lavish words for Booth and Paschall.
“These two seniors, they’re going to go down as two of the greatest Villanova basketball players of all time,” he said. “You’ve got to thank God you had an opportunity to be a part of their lives, because they’ve meant so much to all of us.”