New York, N.Y. – The top four seeds in the Big East tournament slugged it out on Friday night in two semi-final games at Madison Square Garden in New York City with berths in the championship game at stake. By the time the second game ended on Saturday morning, Villanova and Seton Hall had survived two hard-fought games with close finishes to play again on Saturday night for the tournament title.
VILLANOVA vs. XAVIER
Playing from behind for most of the game and never holding a lead in the second half, Villanova tied the score a 58 on a Eric Paschall tip-in with seven seconds remaining in regulation. They then outscored Xavier 13-9 in overtime to come away with a 71-67 victory before a huge contingent of Wildcats fans who made up a majority of the sellout crowd and gave the arena a feel of a Villanova home game. “What a fun game to be part of,” said Villanova Coach and recently-named Big East Coach of the Year Jay Wright. “When you win, it’s a lot more fun. Either way, the atmosphere in the Garden, Friday night, semi-finals, there’s just nothing like it in college basketball. That place was rocking.”
Following up on sensational performances the previous night by Marquette’s Markus Howard and Seton Hall’s Myles Powell, Villanova’s Phil Booth made sure Big East observers included his name in a short list of the best guards in the conference by scoring 28 points and spearheading a Villanova second-half comeback that saw the Wildcats rally from a six-point halftime deficit. Asked to rank Booth’s performance among the other top performances of players he had coached over the years in the Big East tournament, Wright joked, “Right now (it’s) the greatest ever. It’s the only one I can remember right now.”
Booth was in attack mode all game. A right-hand dominant player, Booth drove the ball to the rim in both directions and finished at the rim as often with his left hand as he did with his right in making 9-of-20 shots. With a comparable skill set built along the lines of a shorter Malcolm Brogdon, the former Virginia star now starting for the Milwaukee Bucks, Booth also found space from behind the three-point arc to make 4-of-10 shots. But his contributions were not limited to scoring as Booth, a fifth-year senior with two national championship rings in his possession, led the Wildcats with five assists and pulled down seven rebounds.
Paschall, Villanova’s second leading scorer to Booth and another fifth-year player with two championship rings, got off to a strong start when he brought the Villanova faithful to its feet early in the game by driving the ball to his left, coming to a jump stop deep in the paint and elevating off two feet for a two-hand throwdown. Normally a reliable shooter from distance who entered the game making 36 percent of his three-point ties, Paschall made only 1-of-4 shots from behind the arc and finished with 12 points, six below his average.
6-5 sophomore Jermaine Samuels, who has the athleticism to play on the wing and the strength to guard in the paint, caught fire in the second half to finish with 17 points and serve as the secondary scorer to Booth. Despite struggling early with his shot, Samuels kept looking at the rim and his triple with 40 seconds left in regulation brought Villanova to within one point of Xavier. “Jermaine has a great attitude,” said Wright. He really doesn’t need any encouragement. We said to him, ‘Take your shot.’ It’s that simple.”
After falling behind early, Xavier rallied behind 6-3 sophomore Paul Scruggs to catch Villanova and build a lead it would take into halftime. Scruggs was dynamic off the bounce. He penetrated the paint to score (28 points) and pass (seven assists.) When Villanova defenders gave him space in playing the drive, he fired from distance and made 4-of-7 shots from behind the arc. His 28 points established a school record for most points scored in a Big East tournament game. “Paul stepped up,” said Xavier Coach Travis Steele. “He was terrific tonight. Obviously, Paul did a lot of scoring tonight, but our guys did a good job finding him as well.”
MARQUETTE vs. SETON HALL
In a game that included nine technical fouls, three player ejections, 54 fouls and 85 combined free throw attempts that lasted just short of three hours and extended into the day after it started, the Pirates eked out an 81-79 victory over the Golden Eagles to punch their ticket to the championship game against Villanova. “I’ve never had anything like that happen in a basketball game before,” said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski. “It’s unexplainable. It was the most unusual basketball game I’ve ever been a part of.”
The game started innocently enough with Marquette picking up where it left off the night before in its 22-point victory over St. John’s. Although Marquette start guard and Big East player of the year Markus Howard was in rare misfiring mode, Sam and Joey Hauser picked up the scoring slack for the Golden Eagles. A Joey Hauser lay-up halfway through the half increased Marquette’s lead to 24-12. “Both the Hausers played phenomenal first halves, really, really tough first halves,” said Seton Hall Coach Kevin Willard of the brother tandem that finished with a combined 23 first-half points.
But Seton Hall has a star of its own in Myles Powell, and doing what stars do, Powell rallied the Pirates. Down 44-38 early in the second half, Powell flashed the ignitable quality to his game that he has put on display so many times in his three years in a Seton Hall uniform. With the ability to shoot about as well off balance as with his feet set, Powell first knocked down an off balance triple from above the top of the key. He followed that up with a three-point make in transition to tie the score at 44. His stepback jump shot in mid-range was his eighth point in a row and gave the Pirates their first lead of the game at 46-44.
It was not long after that when Powell was fouled by Marquette big Theo John. Players from both teams got heated, some shoving took place and after a long look at the video and discussion, the referees ejected Marquette’s John and Sacar Anim along with Seton Hall’s Powell and Sandro Mamukelashvili. John and Sacar represented Marquette’s two best defenders and in Powell and Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall would be losing its two best offensive players. But shortly after the announcement was made and the four players walked to their respective dressing rooms, Powell came back onto the court and sat on the Seton Hall bench. Turned out the announcement of Powell’s ejection was a mistake and he was still eligible to play. “It was crazy,” said Powell. “Just to be able to get called back to the game, I was happy. I felt like I let my teammates down. Them giving me a second chance, I really appreciated it. It’s all a blessing.”
Powell took advantage of his second chance to lead the Pirates to a 74-67 lead with just under three minutes remaining. With Mamukelashvili out of the game, Marquette predictably focused its defensive efforts on Powell. Wojciechowski inserted 6-8 freshman Brendan Bailey, son of longtime NBA big Thurl Bailey, into the game and assigned him the primary coverage on Powell. Powell explored scoring opportunities when he could and finished with a team-high 22 points, but he also adroitly set up teammates like Quincy McKnight and Romaro Gill for scoring plays when Marquette helped off them to assist Bailey in covering Powell.
But Marquette was not done despite falling behind by seven points, and when Seton Hall’s Shavar Reynolds missed one of two free throws with seven seconds left in the game, the Golden Eagles trailed by two. Marquette put the ball in Howard’s hands, but this was not Howard’s night and his three-point attempt just above the line on the left wing clanged off the rim giving the Pirates the victory and drawing a huge roar from the pro-Seton Hall crowd that made the short 20-mile trip from the Seton Hall campus in South Orange, New Jersey to Madison Square Garden.
Howard finished with 21 points, but he connected on only 1-of 15 shots and 18-of- 24 free throw attempts. While good for many players, Howard has shot free throws at a 91 percent clip in his three years in a Marquette uniform and finished the regular season second in the Big East to teammate Sam Hauser in free throw shooting percentage. Playing with a taped left wrist he injured against Villanova on February 27, Howard spent the last three minutes of the first half in the Marquette locker room after re-injuring the same wrist. But he played all 20 minutes of the second half and Wojciechowski was making no excuses for Howard after the game. “He was fine,” said the Marquette coach. “He banged his wrist. There’s a lot of guys that are banged up. He’s well enough to play.”
The victory propelled Seton Hall into the championship game against Villanova on Saturday night. The teams split the two meetings during the season with each team winning on its home court.