- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) - For all its Big East dominance the past few years, Villanova keeps coming up small in March.

And that’s the month that matters in college basketball.

Isaiah Whitehead scored 26 points, including the deciding three-point play with 18 seconds left, and Seton Hall won the Big East Tournament for the first time in 23 years by beating the third-ranked Wildcats 69-67 on Saturday night before a sellout crowd of 19,812 at Madison Square Garden.

With its latest disappointing loss to a lower-seeded team, Villanova squandered a chance to repeat as tournament champion. The defeat might have cost the Wildcats (29-5) a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament - and the opportunity to play near home in Philadelphia if they reach the Sweet Sixteen.

“We really don’t care about that,” coach Jay Wright said. “I know we have a chance to play in the East. We would love to play in the East. But if we don’t, we’re so happy to be playing in the NCAA Tournament. We’ll take whatever we get.”



Of course, advancing even that far has been problematic of late.

Since reaching the Final Four in 2009, the Wildcats haven’t made it past the first weekend in five trips to the NCAAs. That despite earning several high seeds following unprecedented regular-season success. Villanova has won all three regular-season crowns since the Big East realigned to 10 teams, going 16-2 in conference play each time.

So the pressure is still on, and top-seeded Villanova can only hope the Big East loss to third-seeded Seton Hall isn’t a sign of another NCAA flop to come.

“I think we’re going to learn a lot from this game. This was a tough, physical, athletic team that really got into us in the first half and took us out of our offense. And I think they’re the kind of teams you meet in the tournament. So it’s great to have that experience. We made a lot of mistakes because of what they did,” Wright said. “We’ll learn from this and we’ll go into the tournament knowing that we still have to get a lot better.”

Villanova trailed most of the way but was leading by two in the waning seconds when Whitehead drove hard on the right side, flipped the ball in softly off the glass and was fouled. His free throw gave the Pirates a 68-67 lead.

Villanova had two more possessions sandwiched around a free throw by Angel Delgado, but on the first one Kris Jenkins missed a 3-pointer and Josh Hart couldn’t convert his putback attempt.

After a miss at the line by Delgado, Ryan Arcidiacono took a pass in stride but slipped as he tried to get in position to shoot. He ran into a crowd of defenders, and his desperation try at the buzzer fell well short of the rim.

It was Seton Hall’s third Big East Tournament title, the others coming in 1991 and 1993. The Pirates (25-8) earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, their first berth in 10 years.

“Whoever we play just better watch out,” Whitehead said.

Seton Hall was ahead by 14 points in the first half and 11 at halftime. The Wildcats finally started hitting from 3-point range in the second half. They tied it four times before finally taking their first lead since 3 minutes into the game when Jenkins’ 3-pointer gave them a 67-64 lead with 50 seconds to play.

A free throw by Whitehead 8 seconds later made it a two-point game but Villanova didn’t score again, turning the ball over once and missing three shots.

“We wanted Villanova, we got ‘em and we beat ‘em,” said Whitehead, the tournament MVP.

Jenkins led the Wildcats with 23 points, and Hart had 17. Arcidiacono scored five points and was 2 for 10 from the field, including 1 of 6 from 3-point range.

Seton Hall built its 40-29 halftime lead by taking advantage of eight Villanova turnovers, three off the team’s average for a game. The Pirates shot 56.7 percent in the half (17 for 30) while the Wildcats shot 44.4 percent (12 for 27), including 2 of 9 from 3-point range.

NOT AGAIN!

Two years ago, an underdog Seton Hall team stunned the top-seeded Wildcats in the Big East quarterfinals. They fell to a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs and lost their second game, to eventual national champion Connecticut.

TIP-INS

Seton Hall: Whitehead has scored at least 20 points in seven consecutive games.

Villanova: Jenkins and Hart made the all-tournament team. … Villanova fell to 2-5 in Big East championship games, with its only titles coming in 1995 and 2015. … The Wildcats were 20 of 38 from beyond the arc in the first two tournament games (52.6 percent). They were 8 of 23 in this one (34.8 percent).

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: NCAA Tournament.

Villanova: NCAA Tournament.

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