PHILADELPHIA– Whenever Villanova and Seton Hall get together, no matter the place, whether it’s the Wells Fargo Center, the Prudential Center, or Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament, no matter who suits up for either side, you’re almost guaranteed a close game up until the end.
Think about some of the great battles these two have had: 2014 Big East Tournament quarter-finals where Seton Hall upset a then 28-3 Villanova team that saw their Big East Tournament hopes dashed as Sterling Gibbs knocked down a buzzer-beating jumper. How about the 2016 final between the two where Isaiah Whitehead certified himself as a Seton Hall legend? Fast forward to next year where the two meet in the Big East Tournament semis where Josh Hart made the clutch and-1 to give Villanova the win. Who could forget the many Phil Booth battles with Myles Powell, capping off in the 2019 Big East Tournament final where Villanova won 74-72.
So many great players on both sides, so many great games.
Saturday was no different.
Villanova as a nine-point favorite coming into this one was laughable given the history between the two teams.
What else did you expect? A tight back-and-forth battle up to the very end that saw Villanova come out on top 73-67 (Ironically the same score these two had when they met on New Year’s Day in Newark) at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon in front of a crowd that was buzzing in the parking lot at 11:00 am, and probably way before then.
It was a beautiful day in Philadelphia and while it felt like March outside, it had a very March feel to it inside.
“That was probably one of the best atmospheres I’ve been at at Nova in a while,” Seton Hall Head Coach Kevin Willard said. “Even two years ago when we won here, I thought that’s the loudest I’ve heard this building probably ever since I’ve been here.”
For the many wars these teams have played, that’s some high praise, and he’s not wrong, the Wells Fargo Center was jumping, and the play on the court gave the crowd many opportunities to get loud.
Not in the first half though.
Seton Hall exploded to start this one, going 5-8 from three-point range to start. They eventually cooled off, and their nine first-half turnovers mostly kept Villanova in the game in the first half. The Wildcats did themselves no favors though, going the final 4:56 of the first half without scoring a point with the Pirates leading at the half 32-29.
“Sometimes if you play horrible and it’s close you feel fortunate, I don’t think we played horrible,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “The other day we played really well, I thought we were playing okay, we just felt like it’s gonna be a grind, this is gonna be a Big East Seton Hall game this is going to be a grind.”
Second half however, was a different story.
It was a little bit back-and-forth to start, and then the game of runs began.
Villanova started at 41-36, then they spurted off a 9-0 run to take a 45-41 lead with 13:42 to go in the half.
Immediately right after, Seton Hall re-gained the lead by going on an 11-0 run to take a 52-45 lead with 10:58 to go in the half.
Immediately right after that, Villanova went on another 9-0 run to take a 54-52 lead with 7:19 to go.
Villanova then closed the game on a 6-0 run in the final 1:26.
Talk about crazy, but it’s Villanova vs. Seton Hall, did you expect anything less?
“I guess Jay and I have been in this league a long time,” Willard said. “I kinda know what Jay’s gonna do, Jay knows what I’m gonna do, you just know each other so well so to prepare your team to play against someone that you know inside and out,”
“I know Jay’s plays better than Jay does.” Willard added.
From six minutes on, it was a duel of massive shot after massive shot either giving a team the lead or tying the game. The crowd was into it, the teams were into it, the benches were into it, it was an awesome sight to see, especially after the dullness of last season.
“It’s a great rivalry because of the games and the crowds,” Wright said. “I don’t know why I looked at it, I looked at their stats, their biggest crowd was when we went there, it’s gotta be one of our biggest crowds and the fans know each other and we’re so close in proximity, both of us have had some success for a long period of time.”
The success of Villanova today could be attributed to a lot of guys. Brandon Slater is seeming to find a groove offensively, as he went for 10 points today, Eric Dixon continued to be a problem down low as he finished with 10 points as well, and Justin Moore made some massive free throws late in the game to put it away.
But look no further than the two super-seniors in Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels to lead the way for Villanova today.
They’ve been here before, they’ve been a part of many battles against Seton Hall, they know what it takes, and they showed it today.
“It just comes down to all teams being relentless in their physical approach and at the same time the competitiveness is there,” Samuels said. “Both sides want it just as bad as the next guy next to them, you can tell from tip-off what type of game it’s gonna be and usually they’re always close.”
Samuels finished with a game-high 16 points and seemed to have a lot of the offense flowing through him today.
“I was just trying to get what the defense gave me,” Samuels said. “Just trying to make aggressive plays and my teammates put me in positions to get to the basket and make open shots, I have to take those and work on them everyday.”
For Gillespie, he’s still working back from an ankle sprain that he suffered a week ago from Saturday against UConn. He somehow played against St. John’s on Tuesday night and while he didn’t score a single point, the 6-foot-3 Gillespie on a bad ankle, grabbed 10 rebounds in their win on Tuesday.
Today, he contributed in the scoring column, putting up 10 points, five rebounds and four assists.
But there was a sequence at the end of the game where Gillespie grabbed a crucial offensive rebound when Villanova was up two with 17 seconds to go. He then dove for a loose ball with 10 seconds to go in the game in which Seton Hall turned it over and that was curtains.
Bum ankle and all.
“He was in my office yesterday, we had a talk, I just said ‘you’re amazing dude, I’m going to be telling stories about you forever’” Wright said. “These are the stories you love to tell, 10 rebounds, no points, trainer says he’s not playing coming into to this game, you can see him struggling early and I took him out and I know he’s not close to 100 percent but making those plays, that’s what we take pride in and that’s what all the great ones before him have done and he continues that tradition, just proud to have him and blessed to have him on our team.”
The more he keeps playing and the more rehab he does, Gillespie should be at 100 percent by no time.
“Just doing everything off the floor that we have to to try and get healthy,” Gillespie said.
“Mental reps, being there at practice, seeing it, watching it, going through film, scouting report is super important, and then just when you get out there just play as if you’re fine, for us that’s just playing Villanova basketball.”
The win improves Villanova to 19-6 overall and 12-3 in the Big East, priming themselves in a massive showdown between them and 1st place Providence on Tuesday up in Rhode Island.
So thus ends another chapter in the Villanova-Seton Hall rivalry; Another tightly-contested back-and-forth game that was decided under 10 points for the eighth straight time between two local rivals in which both coaches agreed in the Post Game press conference, is the best rivalry in the Big East.
“Just a great college basketball game, Big East basketball game, I’d like to think I would say the same thing if we’re on the other side of it.” Wright said.
“If you just watch over the last years of games we’ve had against each other and it’s been a battle,” Willard said. “I’ve talked about how much respect I have for Gillespie and Samuels and what they’ve done for the league, it’s a battle every time we play each other.”
Potentially Round 3 at the Garden in about a month in the Big East Tournament?
I don’t think anyone would complain; I certainly won’t.