Saturday, March 12, 2016

Whitehead's three-point play leads to Seton Hall's first BIG EAST tourney title since 1993

                                     Photo Credit: Geno Green

In a strange twist of irony, the Seton Hall Pirates were in the same predicament as the Villanova Wildcats in last season's at the BIG EAST Tournament.

Villanova (29-5) won its first tournament title in 20 seasons and Seton Hall (25-8) found itself in an eerily similar position on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Seton Hall's 23-year drought of falling short in the conference tournament came to an end as Isaiah Whitehead's three-point play gave the Pirates a one-point lead with 18 seconds left and Angel Delgado's free throw make marked an exclamation point in 69-67 win against top-seeded Villanova and an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

Whitehead finished with a game-high 26 points on 11-of-21 from the field and relishes the role of the closer with March Madness in full swing.

"This whole year, Coach [Willard] has been raving about just making winning plays," Whitehead said. 

"I really just attacked the basket. I felt I had an opportunity to score the ball. I mean, I saw Kris Jenkins coming over and I knew that he wouldn't be able to get in position fast enough for me to draw a charge. I just tried to lay it on him."

Whitehead goes into next week's tournament with at least 20 points in nine of his last 10 games.

Game Recap:

In front of an enthused, sold-out crowd of 19,812 for the first time in since the 2009 BIG EAST title game, both teams did not disappoint in the game's first 8:49 as Seton Hall held a 17-15 advantage.

On the other side, both teams were sloppy in the ball-handling department with five turnovers in that stretch.

Whitehead capped a 10-2 run with a triple that threw Pirate fans into a frenzy to go ahead 25-19.

The Pirates controlled the pace for the remainder of the half as they went into the locker room with a 40-29 advantage on Villanova shooting 56.7 percent (17-of-30) from the field. 

With Seton Hall looking well on its way to finishing off the defending tournament champions at the 15:21 mark in the second half, Villanova responded like a boxer answering the 10-count in the 12th round with a 9-0 run, which threw Villanova fans into a frenzy.

Villanova would fight back and tie the game at 50 on a three-pointer from Jenkins.

With the momentum shifting towards Villanova, Whitehead decided to take matters into his own hands by nailing a jumper with Darryl Reynolds draped all over and fouled in the process. 

Both teams slugged it out for the next nine minutes in game time, with each shot being matched and the crowd's audible levels rising as the layers began to reach its climax.

Whitehead's three-point play towards the end of the game and Delgado's split capped off Seton Hall's comeback and coach Kevin Willard emphasized about New York City always being a BIG EAST town.

"I got asked the question before about, is the tournament in trouble? And I think of today, people were hanging over the sky bridges," Willard said. "If you watched the level of basketball that these kids play, I'm sorry, it's incomparable."

Villanova coach Jay Wright echoed similar sentiments on the intensity of the crowd at the Garden.

"If you're a basketball purist, there's nowhere you would rather coach or play than in this conference  or you would rather play your tournament than in Madison Square Garden," Wright said. "You just saw tonight that's what it is."

Looking Ahead:

Seton Hall and Villanova will be a part of the NCAA Tournament in Sunday's Selection Show. 

No matter the seeding, Wright relishes the opportunity to participate in the 68-team field.

"I don't know enough about the criteria and would love to play in the East [Region], but being in the tournament is good enough for us," Wright said.

Social Media:

Follow Geno Green on Twitter @TheGenoGreen.