Nova Survives Semifinal Scare, Creighton Awaits

Jay Wright is a wolf in a designer clothing.

The Villanova coach is tall, dark, handsome and reportedly has one entire closet dedicated to his suits. Another closet holds his custom-made dress shirts, shoes, ties, pocket squares and possibly a felt-lined jewelry box for his NCAA Championship ring.

Talk about the Wright Stuff.

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But under that white collar wardrobe is a blue-collar taskmaster. More important than wins and losses to Wright is how tough his teams play. Wright has understatedly dubbed the style, ‘Villanova Basketball.’

When the shots aren’t falling, when the opposition is hot, when the calls are going the wrong way – the one intangible Nova believes it can always fall back on is toughness. The Wildcats didn’t even have that working for them Friday night for most of their Big East Conference Tournament semifinal round game against Seton Hall at The Garden.

For 39 minutes and 50.4 seconds, Seton Hall, the defending tournament champs, had out-toughed Villanova, the defending national champions. But with 9.6 seconds left, Villanova’s Josh Hart made the toughest and most meaningful play of the game.

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The Big East Player of the Year snatched an offensive rebound at the rim and banked it in, drawing a foul. Hart converted the three-point play, giving the Wildcats a 55-53 win. Payback for last season’s 69-67 loss to The Hall in the title game and a third straight 30-win season.

Villanova (30-3) will face Creighton (25-8) in Saturday evening’s championship game in The World’s Most Famous Arena. The Blue Jays edged Xavier, 75-72, on Marcus Foster’s pull-up three-pointer with seven seconds left.

Creighton lost both regular-season games to Villanova, losing by 10 at home and 16 on the road. This, as we learned Friday night, means little. Villanova had previously beaten Seton Hall by 30 and 26.

“We just had players that gutted it out,’’ Wright said.

Two players in particular. Hart’s play was equal parts anticipation, hustle and skill.

Kris Jenkins, who hit the biggest shot in Villanova history when his buzzer-beating three toppled North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament title game, had a wide-open three from just left of the top of the key.

“Right when I saw him shoot it, I knew he put a little too much mustard on it,’’ Hart said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? Just go get it.’’’

The play was all Hart. 

Seton Hall still had a basketball eternity to force overtime or win it outright. The Pirates got the ball down low to Angel Delgado, a smiling machine off the court and a paint monster on it.

Delgado muscled up a shot that rolled from one side of the back of the rim to the other, but didn’t drop.

Hart grabbed the rebound and heaved the ball towards The Garden’s rafters as the horn sounded. Delgado fell to the court in tears. The Pirates (21-11) had beat the Wildcats at their own game for more than 39 minutes. They led 27-20 at halftime, having held Nova to its lowest first-half point total of the season.

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“Coach challenged us to play Villanova basketball for 20 minutes,’’ Hart said.

The Wildcats did. They shot just 26.9 percent in the first half, were outrebounded for the game and led for just three minutes and six seconds. But when it came time to play ‘Villanova Basketball,’ the Wildcats did just that.

“They got guts,’’ Wright said. “They have no fear of failure. And I think that’s what you saw at the end.’’

Villanova will need to gut it out again. It’s hard to beat a team three times. They’ll have to do it two nights in a row to win the Big East Conference Tourney for the second time in three years. Creighton has other plans. It’s looking for its first-ever league tourney title.

“Tomorrow night is the opportunity you’ve dreamed of,’’ Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “The Big East Championship on Saturday night. We’re not going down without a fight.’’

STAT OF THE DAY: Seton Hall, the worst free throw shooting team in the conference and one of the worst nationally at just under 65 percent, made 22-of-23 free throws (95.7 percent), in its quarterfinal round win over Marquette. The Pirates, unfortunately, reverted back to form going 4-for-9, leaving five points at the line in the two-point loss to Nova.

PLAY OF THE DAY: Creighton’s Marcus Foster hit an NBA-range pull-up three with seven seconds left, giving the Blue Jays a 75-72 win. McDermott had a timeout left, but opted not to use it. “I believe in him,’’ McDermott said of Foster. “We had the ball in our best player’s hand.’’

PLAYER OF DAY: The league Player of the Year was the Player of the Semifinals. Villanova’s Hart scored a game-high 19 points, including 12 of his team’s final 16 points, to go along with 10 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season.

MOMENT OF THE DAY: After Delgado’s point blank shot rolled off, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound power forward fell to The Garden court, tears streaming down his face. Hart consoled him. I have so much respect for him,’’ Hart said. “He’s a competitor. I told him, ‘Carry this feeling into the tournament. You know this feeling? Don’t feel this again.’’’

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Creighton’s Justin Patton, the Big East Freshman of the Year, channeled his inner Kristaps Porzingis. The 7-footer was 10-of-13 from the field, including 1-for-1 on threes. Patton said, “Man, this is a dream. I’m just a little kid from Omaha.’’