Villanova, Creighton advance to Big East Final

March 10, 2017 - 6:15 pm
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It was close for the defending national champs. Real close. Yes, Villanova won the NCAA crown a year ago, but they couldn't win the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Instead, Seton Hall managed to put their own name in the league record book by beating the Wildcats in the 2016 league finals. Friday night's first semifinal of 2017 featured a rematch of last season's title game, and the Pirates almost forced the Cats to walk the plank, again. That is, until the Player of the Year played the role of swashbuckler, swooping in to save his team in the end. Josh Hart scored 19 points with 10 rebounds, including the game-winner with 9.6 seconds to play on a put-back of a Kris Jenkins miss, and it was Villanova coming from behind to beat Seton Hall 55-53 at a sold-out Garden in New York. Hart's rebound of Jenkins' miss, plus a free throw, provided the winning margin – that almost wasn't. The Pirates' Angel Delgado missed a point-blank jump hook with a second left on the Garden clock that could have forced overtime, but his shot rimmed out. After the miss Delgado, the nation's leading rebounder this season, was inconsolable as he lay face-down on the Garden floor, as his teammates attempted to pick him up. Seton Hall carried a 7-point lead into the halftime locker room thanks to an outstanding defensive effort, and some poor Nova foul shooting, limiting the Wildcats to a mere 20 points in the opening 20 minutes. Villanova scored 108 points in Thursday's quarterfinal win against St. John's. But while Hart and Jalen Brunson (13 points) largely led a renewed 2nd half effort against the Pirates, the Hall kept up the pace and Khadeen Carrington's 3-point play gave his team a 53-52 lead with 1:43 left. Both teams had two more chances to score, but came up empty, until Hart's rebound and foul off Jenkins' miss. Seton Hall had a five-game winning streak snapped with the loss, and ended a run that had seen them win six of seven at MSG, with three wins over nationally-ranked teams dating back to last season. For Villanova, which had beaten the Pirates by an average of 26 points in two regular season wins, the 20 points in the first half was a season-low. In their previous low effort (22 against Virginia), the Cats managed to come from behind and win that one as well. Perhaps that's as good a reason as any why Villanova is a national champ, as they look toward a possible repeat. But they've got one more to play closer to home Saturday night – and that's one they couldn't get a year ago. *** In Friday night's second game, Xavier used a rebounding advantage with second-chance shots over Creighton in the first half, on their way to a 37-31 halftime lead. Surprisingly, playing their third game in three nights, the Musketeers had the better legs in the opening 20 minutes over the BlueJays. But Creighton, which managed to out-ugly Providence in a quarterfinal win Thursday night, turned on their offense in the second half against Xavier with just one miss in the opening five minutes of the second half – and advanced to their second Big East final with a 75-72 victory. The Musketeers' J.P. Macura did his best to keep his teams' legs loose, firing in six threes (finishing with 22 points) with his last one giving XU a one-point lead at 65-64 with 4:08 to play. But the inside/outside combination of 7-footer Justin Patton (21 points) and Marcus Foster (21 points) proved to be just a bit better, and helped by little-used back-up guard Tyler Clement – who hit his only basket of the game to give his team the lead again on a trey – a Foster corner three put his team up with just under two minutes left. But that merely set the stage for a final, frantic minute. With Creighton up 72-69, Trevon Bluiett nailed a three from the right side to tie the score with 15.6 seconds left. Foster then took the ball and answered with a trey of his own, and just 6.6 ticks remaining, for the 75-72 score. Macura had a deep, 30-footer hit the front rim just before time finally ran out. BIG EAST NOTES In case you had forgotten, the Big East pre-season poll had Villanova as the favorite, followed by Xavier, Creighton and Seton Hall. And those were the four teams left standing going into Friday night's semifinals at MSG. Both Creighton and Xavier had been considered serious national contenders before the season began, and as the season progressed through non-conference play, until serious injuries knocked out both teams' starting point guards in a two-week span in January. Creighton's Maurice Watson tore an ACL (against Xavier) on Jan. 16th, while the Musketeers' Edmond Sumner then suffered a similar injury against St. John's at the end of the month. For the BlueJays, they advance to their second conference championship in their four years since joining the Big East. Creighton, led by national Player of the Year Doug McDermott, lost the 2014 final to Providence. Xavier advanced to the tournament semifinals for a fourth straight year since joining the league prior to the 2013-14 season. Creighton (seeded 6th) and Villanova will meet for the Big East title at 5:30 Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats swept two regular season games against Creighton, by a total of 26 points.