True to their heritage as New Yorkers, Seton Hall’s players never had to stop and ask for directions. They knew just where they were going, were proud of where they were and didn’t stop until they climbed a ladder and cut down a net.
With the scoreboard showing Seton Hall 69, Villanova 67 on Saturday night, the real home team in the Big East Tournament was the king of the hill, top of the heap.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said tournament most outstanding player Isaiah Whitehead of Brooklyn, whose game-high 26 points included the three most important ones — a drive and a free throw with 18.5 seconds left that turned a two-point deficit into a 68-67 lead. “This is one of the main reasons I chose to stay home, so my friends and family could see me play as much as possible. To have them seeing me holding the trophy up there at the end, it’s like picture-perfect.”
Actually, the sound was more pronounced than the picture. A sellout crowd of 19,812 at Madison Square Garden — which included many fans of defending champion Villanova — made noise so dense you almost could feel and taste it, like a spicy stew. Seton Hall, with three sophomores from New York high schools and fellow starter Ismael Sanogo from Newark, was perfectly comfortable.
It built a 13-point second-half lead against the nation’s No. 3 team (about 19 hours after having beaten No. 5 Xavier), then saw it all evaporate. In fact, Villanova (29-5) went up 67-64 with 52 seconds left as Kris Jenkins made a three-point shot in a 23-point game. But Seton Hall (25-8) tightened its defense, trapped all-conference player Josh Hart into a five-second violation and kept coming.
“I’m from Brooklyn; we never back down from anybody,” Whitehead said.
Kevin Willard, the coach who had convinced New Yorkers Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez to remain close to home, fell over backward on the floor when his star guard got the roll into the basket and the call.
But there still was work to do. The Pirates had to challenge Jenkins’ three-point shot, then had to defend Hart’s layup after an offensive rebound. They did both. Was there contact on Hart? It sure looked that way. But Villanova coach Jay Wright did not gripe afterward.
“Josh got a great look, you know, and it didn’t go,” Wright said. He still appreciated what he had been part of. “We play in the mecca, Madison Square Garden. Great traditional basketball schools. All the alumni of these schools, this is what they live for. No football weekends. No football homecoming games.”
The whole week felt like an indoor tailgate party for Seton Hall, which had not been in a Big East final since 1993.
“It’s just big for me and my family and the program,” Rod riguez said after 12 points and four steals. “We feel like home.”
Willard, who played in the tournament for Pittsburgh, was emotional as he wore the net around his neck while the sound system blasted “Born to Run,” a New Jersey anthem. He knows how long the memory will stay with his players. He also repeated a tweak at the ACC and Big Ten, who will bring their tournaments here in the next few years.
“They are going to be tourists. They’re going to come in, they’re going to get a slice of pizza and hopefully a bacon-egg-and-cheese and a coffee, and then they’re going to leave,” said the former ball boy at St. Dominic High in Oyster Bay. “But at the end of the day, the Big East will still be here.”