Over three days at Madison Square Garden, a strong-but-unremarkable season has taken on the look of a national title defense.
Villanova captured the national championship a year ago but then was depleted by defections for the NBA Draft, and it showed at times. The Wildcats still managed to win the Big East regular-season title behind returning seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall despite losing five of their last eight games.
However, this is March, the time of year when Villanova wins titles.
And so it was Saturday night. Top-seeded and 25th-ranked Villanova held together in the late going and completed its run to a fifth Big East championship by defeating third-seeded Seton Hall, 74-72, in the title game before a sellout crowd of 19,812.
“These games were grind-it-out wins, and that’s a tribute to Phil and Eric,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. “Those two are going to go down as two of the greatest players in Villanova history.”
The Wildcats (25-9) are the first Big East team to win three straight conference tournament championships and have won four of the last five titles. They are likely to get a top-four seeding in the NCAA Tournament when the field is announced Sunday.
“This is a different team from last year,” said Booth, who was named most outstanding player after his 16-point performance, “but we knew it was still a very good team and we never stopped believing that this is possible. I give a lot of credit to [Paschall] for his leadership . . . And we have more to come.”
Booth and Paschall led the Wildcats out of a 55-55 tie just past the midpoint of the second half, when they hit three-pointers on consecutive possessions for a 61-57 advantage. Then Villanova hung on to the upper hand through the last eight minutes, including some precarious final seconds.
Seton Hall’s Anthony Nelson hit both ends of a one-and-one with 42.3 seconds left to make it a one-possession game at 73-70. The Pirates got the ball back after a charging foul on Paschall, and Myles Powell — who had 25 points — put back his own miss to make it a one-point game.
The Pirates fouled Paschall, who made one of two free throws for a 74-72 lead with 13.7 seconds remaining.
Out of a timeout with 8.9 seconds left, Powell attempted a go-ahead three-pointer from the right wing that went off the back of the iron. Booth got the rebound but was called for traveling with four-tenths of a second left. Nelson tried for a play at the basket on his inbounds pass, but it went off the rim.
“I thought it was going to drop,” Powell said of his three. “Shooters usually aim for the back of the rim, and it just hit off long. We got another opportunity at it. We tried to throw it up to Sandro [Mamukelashvili] to see if he could tie it, but we just didn’t have enough time.”
“We closed out with good solid play and good defense,” Villanova’s Collin Gillespie said. “We do that because we practice all those things every day in practice. It’s always about the details . . . and we have Phil and Eric, and their experience means a lot.”
Paschall had 17 points and eight rebounds, freshman Saddiq Bey added 16 points and 10 rebounds and Jermaine Samuels had 12 points for Villanova.
Nelson had 12 points and Myles Cale 10 for Seton Hall (20-13), which also will be in the NCAA Tournament field.
“I’m excited about next week,” Pirates coach Kevin Willard said. “That’s what I told the team; that’s a good basketball team out there cutting down the nets [and] they deserve it. They fought hard. They had some big stops. But I love the fact my team fought, and we had a chance to win it.”