In the movies, Myles Cale would get the shot off in time and it would drop through the net. A wild celebration would follow, capping an emotional, teary-eyed Senior Night that would result in Seton Hall’s first outright Big East regular-season title in 27 years.
In reality, none of that took place. The Pirates came up agonizingly short, falling 79-77, in front of a Prudential Center-record crowd of 16,863 when Cale failed to get his shot (which misfired) off in time.
“This one is rough,” Myles Powell said after his final game in Newark. “This is my last time here. I just wished it could’ve turned out a little better.”
Now, to claim that elusive league title, the No. 8 team in the country will have to win at No. 11 Creighton on Saturday afternoon in Omaha, Neb. A loss could drop the Pirates to a third seed in next week’s Big East Tournament if Villanova were to win at Georgetown earlier Saturday. Fortunately, these Pirates (21-8, 13-4) are at home on the road, owning a 7-1 record there in league play.
“I feel like we play better when our backs are against the wall anyway, so we always tend to make it harder for ourselves,” Powell said. “I always say there’s better days ahead, and that’s how I’m going to keep looking at it. We’re still No. 1 in the conference, we still are a game up. We’ve been in this situation before and we’re built for this.”
The stage may have been perfect, but there was one problem: Villanova wasn’t in Newark to see a celebration. The No. 14 Wildcats (23-7, 12-5) have owned the conference since it was reformed seven years ago, and that championship muscle memory hasn’t gone anywhere.
Jay Wright’s team reminded everyone how tough it still can be, building a big lead and holding off several Seton Hall rallies to ruin the party.
After losing to the Pirates in Philadelphia on Feb. 8, Villanova returned the favor, keeping alive its hopes of sharing the league title.
In his final game at Prudential Center, Powell started slowly and never quite got going, finishing with 14 points on 5-for-18 shooting. Sandro Mamukelashvili had 20 points and 10 rebounds and Quincy McKnight notched 16 points and seven assists.
But the offensive end isn’t where Seton Hall fell short. It was on defense, their strong suit, where the Pirates faltered. Villanova hit 13 3-pointers, five by dynamic freshman Justin Moore, who scored 19 points. Saddiq Bey led the Wildcats with 20 points while defending Powell well.
“They answered every punch that we had tonight,” McKnight said.
After trailing by 14 early in the second half and eight in the final half-minute, Seton Hall rallied to pull within a single possession with 3.4 seconds left. The Pirates also had the ball. Villanova had suddenly forgotten how to shoot free throws, missing 5 of 6. But McKnight fed Cale after pushing the ball up court a hair too late. There was no magical finish.
By the time the ball was tipped at the start, the crowd had already worked itself into a lather following the emotional Senior Night activities. Those concluded with Powell and coach Kevin Willard sharing a lengthy embrace, tears running down the senior’s face. When Powell was announced last in the Seton Hall starting lineup, the roof nearly came off. “Let’s go Pirates” chants reverberated throughout the arena.
Then Villanova scored 10 of the game’s first 14 points, setting an ominous tone. Heading off to face Creighton, Seton Hall now finds itself in a similar spot, as a likely underdog on the road against a formidable opponent. It has been here before and prevailed, several times in fact.
Willard reminded his players of that when he entered the locker room and saw several crying. He told them all of their goals remain within reach.
“We know what’s on the line for Saturday now,” McKnight said.