(AP) — Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard exhaled. Or tried to.
Pondering his team’s frenetic victory against No. 23 Marquette in a Big East tournament semifinal that started on Friday night and ended after midnight Saturday, Willard worked to clear the memory of a contest that included a combined eight technical fouls and 85 free-throw attempts.
Suddenly, everything was prologue for the third-seeded Pirates, who will play top-seeded, No. 25 Villanova for the conference tournament title on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“We have another great opportunity against another great team in this league,” Willard said. “You’ve got to take advantage of these opportunities when you’re in them.”
Seton Hall (20-12) defeated Marquette, the tournament’s second seed, behind a balanced attack that included 22 points from Myles Powell and 18 from Quincy McKnight. Sandro Mamukelashvili chipped in 10 points before he was ejected midway through the second half.
Two Golden Eagles were ejected alongside Mamukelashvili following a skirmish that resulted when Powell took a hard foul.
“You’re talking about probably one of the best nights in college basketball — this Friday night 1/8in the Big East tournament 3/8 — and the place was electric, and the biggest thing for me was just getting those guys to understand we still had 12-and-a-half minutes to go,” Willard said.
Villanova (24-9) earned its fifth straight berth in the conference tournament championship game by rallying for a 71-67 overtime victory against fourth-seeded Xavier in the earlier semifinal.
No stranger to nail-biters, the Wildcats relied on their depth and experience as the game progressed.
“We’ve been in close games throughout the season. We lost some, won some,” senior guard Phil Booth said. “We’ve been down the stretch in tough games. We just try to stay together. … Get another stop. Don’t play the score.”
Against Xavier, Villanova trailed from the 8:23 mark of the first half until Eric Paschall tipped in a follow of a Booth layup attempt with 7.6 seconds remaining in regulation, tying the game at 58 and forcing overtime.
Booth and Paschall combined to score 10 of the Wildcats’ 13 points in the extra session, but Jermaine Samuels also shined down the stretch, swishing a trio of 3-pointers in the final 2:54 of regulation and overtime.
Resilience served Villanova well. The Wildcats trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half and shot only 41.0 percent in the game, but a disciplined defense helped them keep pace in the late stages. The defending national champions weren’t whistled for a second-half foul until there was 7:32 remaining.
“Really proud of our guys,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. “It’s really gratifying as a coach to see young people under pressure in a really tense environment keep a positive attitude and stick to our core values, stick together, and just grind it out, man. If you can take that into life and handle everything in life, that way you’re going to be a pretty successful guy.
“I was really, really proud that they got to experience that, and I was proud that they did it.”
The Pirates and Wildcats split the regular-season series. Villanova routed Seton Hall 80-52 on Jan. 27 in Philadelphia before Seton Hall closed the regular season with a 79-75 home win on March 9.
–Field Level Media