Jay Wright

Villanova beats Seton Hall to become first team to win three consecutive Big East Tournament titles

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Villanova beats Seton Hall to become first team to win three consecutive Big East Tournament titles

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NEW YORK — Villanova became the first team to win three consecutive Big East Tournaments, beating Seton Hall 74-72 on Saturday night behind seniors Eric Paschall and Phil Booth and key contributions from freshman Saddiq Bey.

Seton Hall star Myles Powell, guarded closely by Booth, missed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds that could have won it. Booth was called for traveling as he tried to corral the rebound, however, and the Pirates got one more chance with 0.4 seconds left. Anthony Nelson's long inbounds lob bounced off the backboard and was slapped away by the Wildcats, who got to party on the Madison Square Garden floor yet again.

"This one is special, very special. This team has taught me so much," Booth said during the postgame ceremonies at center court. "These young dudes are like a fresh breath of air for me, being around them."

The 25th-ranked and top-seeded Wildcats (25-9) were in the Big East final for a fifth straight year, and have won four of the last five championships. The only loss during that span was to Seton Hall in 2016, and Powell and the third-seeded Pirates (20-13) gave Villanova all it could handle once again.

"Can't thank Phil and Eric for their leadership enough," Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. "They've been great examples of what a Villanova basketball player is their whole career."

Powell scored 25 points to cap a spectacular three days in Manhattan for the high-scoring guard.

Paschall had 17 points and eight rebounds, and Booth scored 16 and was selected most outstanding player of the 40th Big East Tournament.

Bey, who Villanova fans hope will lead the next wave of championship teams, had 16 points and 10 rebounds.

"Our team loves playing here in the Garden," Wright said.

Villanova had a chance to seal it in the final 30 seconds but Paschall was called for a charge when he lowered his shoulder into Myles Cale with 24 seconds left. Powell quickly scored inside at the other end to cut the Wildcats' lead to 73-72 with 15.5 seconds left.

The Pirates sent Paschall to the line with 13.7 seconds remaining and he made the first and missed the second. Seton Hall rebounded and called a timeout to set up a final play with 8.9 seconds left.

Big picture 
Seton Hall: Nelson scored 12 points off the bench for the scrappy Pirates, but other than Powell, they had a hard time finding offense. They did force 14 turnovers. They'll go as far as Powell and a tough defense will take them in the NCAAs.

Villanova: The Wildcats also got key contributions from sophomores Jermaine Samuels (12 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals) and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (six points and seven rebounds). The inexperienced players have provided inconsistent production much of the season, and if Wright's team is going to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats will need more games like this one from the young guys.

"Things were rocky right until the last second of this game," Wright said. "It's been a rocky season."

Up next 
Seton Hall: The Pirates are headed to their fourth straight NCAA Tournament, matching a school best (1991-94).

Villanova: The defending national champions will be in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight season, but will probably be seeded worse than a 2 for the first time since 2013. Villanova also won the 2016 national title.

Villanova's Big East title hopes on the line tonight against Marquette

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Villanova's Big East title hopes on the line tonight against Marquette

Villanova is in uncharted territory. The Wildcats have lost three games in a row for the first time in six years. They've plummeted out of the Top 25 rankings and have seen their potential NCAA Tournament seeding take a massive hit. 

Not many people outside the Villanova program feel sorry for Jay Wright and company, given the Wildcats' historic run of success over the last five years. 

To make matters worse, the road ahead doesn't get any easier Wednesday night when 10th-ranked Marquette visits the Finneran Pavilion looking to complete a season sweep of Villanova and essentially lock up the Big East regular-season title. 

Here are the major storylines entering the biggest game of the season for both teams:

Villanova scuffling

The Wildcats' three-game losing streak has come entirely on the road. It began with a blown 19-point lead against St. John's on Feb. 17. Three days later, Villanova was thoroughly outplayed by a mediocre Georgetown team. Then there was last Sunday's 12-point loss at Xavier when the Wildcats went more than nine minutes in the second half without scoring. 

Villanova looks gassed. They hardly resemble the team that won 11 straight games from late December to early Februrary. Wright has largely relied on a seven-man rotation with the occasional appearance by freshman Jahvon Quinerly. The Wildcats won a lot of games with that pared down rotation but it seems to have caught up with them now. Villanova's two best players — seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall — are averaging 36 and 37 minutes per game, respectively, in Big East competition. Junior Collin Gillespie also averages well over 30 minutes per game in conference play. 

To his credit, Wright has tried to adjust. He's getting Booth, Paschall and Gillespie more rest early in games. But that strategy hasn't had the desired impact. Booth and Gillespie are really struggling with their outside shots. Booth is shooting just 20 percent from three-point territory in the last seven games, while Gillespie has converted just 19 percent of his three-point attempts in the last five games.  

Villanova thrives when they are making shots. When their best shooters are struggling to this extent, it can get ugly. 

Senior night

There should be plenty of electricity in the Finneran Pavilion on Wednesday night. Villanova will honor its senior class prior to the last on-campus home game of the season. Booth and Paschall are the headliners  they will go down as two of the most accomplished players in program history. Both are two-time national champions who have been instrumental to the Wildcats' overwhelming recent success. 

Booth has played 140 career games. Villanova has a 122-18 record in those 140 games. He scored a team-high 20 points as a sophomore in the 2016 National Championship Game and was a driving force on the 2018 championship team, generally considered the best team in school history. 

Paschall has improved dramatically in his four years at Villanova after transferring from Fordham. He's having an outstanding senior season and has played his way onto the margins of being a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA draft. 

Emotions will be running high as Wright honors Booth, Paschall and the rest of the Villanova seniors. The Wildcats just have to channel that emotion properly to pull of a signature victory. 

Don't call it an upset

Despite riding a three-game losing streak and facing the top team in the Big East, Villanova is listed as a five-point favorite against Marquette. The Golden Eagles have won 16 of their last 17 games, including a 66-65 decision over Villanova earlier this month. They are led by the soon-to-be Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard, who averages more than 25 points per game and scored 38 points in that win over Villanova.  

Everything points to the Wildcats' struggles continuing. Everything except for the time-tested 'wounded animal' theory. It's one of the best adages in sports — nothing is more dangerous than a wounded animal. And Villanova certainly fits the bill at the moment, coming off those three straight ugly losses and sitting a game and a half behind Marquette in the Big East standings with three games left in the regular season. 

A wounded animal comes out in attack mode when confronted. Expect to see that from Villanova on Wednesday night.

Impressive coaching from Jay Wright proves essential for Villanova

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Impressive coaching from Jay Wright proves essential for Villanova

Jay Wright admitted he was surprised following Villanova's 28-point drubbing of Seton Hall on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center. Wright wasn't surprised by the outcome of the game necessarily, but he was a little caught off guard by just how much progress his team has made over the last six weeks.

The Wildcats lost to No. 1 Kansas on Dec. 15 to drop to 8-4 on the season. Their four losses matched Villanova's loss total from each of the previous two seasons. In addition to the Kansas loss, they were blown out at home by Michigan, beaten by Furman in overtime, and bested by Penn, a loss that snapped Villanova's 25-game Big 5 winning streak.

The Wildcats' offense was clunky and more alarmingly, their trademark defensive intensity was nowhere to be found. It seemed like this group might be destined for the NIT.

Fast forward to the final days of January and Villanova looks like a completely different team. The Wildcats haven't lost since that mid-December Saturday in Kansas. They have won eight straight games, sit in first place in the Big East with a perfect 7-0 conference record and have climbed up to 14th in this week's AP Top 25 poll. 

It isn't a stretch to say this is Jay Wright's best coaching job in his 18 years as Villanova head coach. The Wildcats' improvement is truly staggering. The offense suddenly looks dynamic, the crisp ball movement and all-around unselfishness resembling the great Villanova teams of recent years. They are once again connected on defense, something senior Phil Booth points toward as the biggest reason for Villanova's winning streak.

Wright has won two national championships in the last three years, establishing Villanova as the country's premiere program over the last half decade. His teams won 165 games from 2014-2018, the most wins in a five-year period in college basketball history. Wright's resume will earn him induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame sooner rather than later.

Yet there are a handful of reasons why this season has been his most impressive work to date.

Leaning on the seniors

Booth and fellow fifth-year senior Eric Paschall have been nothing short of sensational. Wright has built the success of his program on the backs of upperclassmen, a rarity for a top-tier program in this era of college basketball. This season has been no different. Booth and Paschall are averaging 21.9 and 20.0 points per game, respectively, in Villanova's seven Big East games. They combined to score 26 of the Wildcats' 30 first half points Sunday against Seton Hall.

Wright calls Booth and Paschall two of the best players in the country. It's easy to see why. They do it all for the Wildcats, both in terms of on-court production and off-court leadership. Booth is performing at an All-American level and Paschall continues to boost his NBA Draft stock. This duo will become even more valuable in February and March. They have seen it all and have tons of winning experience. Wright's biggest challenge will be keeping Booth and Paschall fresh for the season's stretch run —  they both average just under 35 minutes per game.

Developing the complementary pieces

While Booth and Paschall were known commodities coming into the season, there weren't any other proven veterans on the Villanova roster. Grooming the Wildcats' complementary pieces is where Wright deserves the most credit. Sophomore Collin Gillespie has blossomed as a reliable floor general, averaging over 11 points per game and shooting just under 40 percent from three-point territory. Freshman Saddiq Bey is developing into an explosive, versatile all-around weapon.

Then there are sophomore forwards Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels, both of whom have stepped up into starring roles when needed. Factor in the steadiness of senior transfer Joe Cremo and the Wildcats have a solid blend of youth and experience. The rotation has been a juggling act for Wright. He has used seven different starting lineups in 20 games this season, often times adjusting to the tendencies and characteristics of the opponent on a game-by-game basis. Wright has deftly managed roles and egos within the Villanova culture he continues to develop. 

Managing the Quinerly situation

This has arguably been Wright's biggest challenge of the season. Freshman Jahvon Quinerly arrived at Villanova with lofty expectations — a McDonald's High School All-American billed as the next great Wildcats lead guard. But Quinerly was slow to adjust to how Villanova plays, particularly on the defensive end. He didn't get off the bench in four non-conference games, his frustration boiling over with a negative Instagram post following Villanova's loss to Penn.

But Wright understood that he was going to need Quinerly at some point and couldn't run the risk of losing him, either to a transfer or Quinerly mentally checking out on the season. Over the last six weeks, Quinerly has gradually become a more integral part of Villanova's rotation. He scored eight points in 15 minutes against Seton Hall on Sunday and figures to be more and more involved moving forward. Credit to both Quinerly and Wright for not letting this situation go off the rails back in December.

Wright has his team in terrific position to win a fifth Big East regular season championship in the last six years. The stumbles and frustration of November and December are a distant memory. February and March are regarded as the proving ground in college basketball and Villanova is poised to make yet another statement thanks in large part to their head coach.