There’s a predictable rhythm to these Villanova-Seton Hall games — a practiced rivalry that begets familiarity, as if Tom is staring down Jerry, saying, “Oh, you again.”
It was present early in Friday night’s Big East semifinal as fifth-seeded Seton Hall took a double-digit lead over the top-seeded Wildcats, much as the Pirates did when they beat Villanova in the tournament final last year.
And it was there again in the second half, when Villanova awoke from its stupor to stage a furious comeback for a 55-53 victory at Madison Square Garden.
Josh Hart’s putback on Kris Jenkins’ missed three-point shot gave Villanova a one-point lead with nine seconds left, and he converted the three-point play to provide the final margin. When Angel Delgado missed a potential tying layup with one second left, the Wildcats avoided a repeat of last year’s buzzer-beater.
Every ’Cat gets its day.
“They’ve played us so well so many times,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “It’s not just last year’s game to me. It’s going into the game, I know, I just know what a Seton Hall-Villanova game is going to be like . . . I think we got outplayed tonight. And we just found ways at the end. Great players make great plays.”
Villanova didn’t lead in the game until midway through the second half, when Jalen Brunson hit a mid-range jumper and Hart converted a steal for a dunk and a 41-40 advantage.
It didn’t last long. Madison Jones’ free throw and Khadee Carrington’s three-pointer put the Pirates ahead, kicking off the frenzied final minutes.
Villanova will play Creighton in Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. championship game.
“It’s tough,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “You give your heart out. You play arguably the best team in the country right down to the wire; you lose — obviously, Josh Hart makes a phenomenal play.”
Hart, the Big East Player of the Year, scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half after Seton Hall held the Wildcats to a season-low 20 points in the first. He also had 10 rebounds.
Desi Rod riguez led Seton Hall with 14 points. Delgado had eight points and eight rebounds but committed five turnovers.
The Wildcats (30-3), ranked second in the nation, couldn’t achieve any semblance of rhythm in the first half. They looked gassed and, at times, even overmatched against Seton Hall’s size.
Villanova was 0-for-5 from the floor to open the game and went into the break down 27-20. Seton Hall (21-11) held Villanova to 26.9 percent shooting from the floor in the first half.
“We were poor in the first half,” Wright said. “And we weren’t that bad defensively. Offensively, we were just terrible and not playing the way we like to play.”
After that, Wright challenged the team, Hart said. “We know we didn’t play Villanova basketball for the first 20 minutes . . . and we knew it was going to be a tough game,’’ Hart said. “We knew we weren’t going to go out and just blow them out by 20 in the second half. It was a grind.”
The Wildcats responded in grand manner, leading to yet another classic battle. Did anyone expect anything else?