NEWARK, N.J. -- This one hurts the most.
Sure, Villanova had come off huge victories over ranked opponents earlier in the season only to stumble against lesser competition the following game.
However, none were more painful and perhaps more damaging to the team’s NCAA tournament hopes than Monday night’s defeat.
James Bell had the ball stolen from him in the final seconds and Villanova allowed Seton Hall’s Fuquan Edwin to sink a three-pointer with 8.9 ticks remaining to hand the Wildcats a 66-65 loss at the Prudential Center (see Instant Replay).
“Tough, tough game,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “It’s been these kind of teams that have given us trouble. We knew it coming in and you got to give them credit.”
Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono had a chance at the final buzzer but his off-balance jumper fell short to snap the Wildcats’ (18-11, 9-7 Big East) three-game win streak.
“They executed their stuff and they stole one at the end,” said Arcidiacono, who led Villanova with 16 points. “Our goal is to steal one by one point at the end and if we win by more, that’s great. But our goal on the road in the Big East is to steal one. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s going to be ugly in the Big East, but just try to steal it in the end. They ended up stealing it from us.”
For a few moments, it did appear that Villanova -- fresh off Saturday’s upset of then-No. 17 Marquette -- was going to escape with another ugly victory in the Big East.
Darrun Hilliard drained a three-pointer from the wing with 1:20 remaining in the game to give Villanova a four-point advantage. Following a pair of Seton Hall free throws, Mouphtaou Yarou knocked down a baseline jumper with 27 seconds left to again push the Wildcats’ lead back to four.
Still, the Pirates (14-15, 3-13 Big East) wouldn’t go away. Bell was whistled for a foul and Edwin made two at the line. On the ensuing inbounds play with 13 seconds sitting on the clock, Arcidiacono found Bell, who drifted toward the sideline. When confronted by two pressing defenders, Bell tried to split the trap only to have the ball poked away from behind and crash on the court. It ended up in the hands of Tom Maayan, who fed a wide-open Edwin in the corner. Edwin had a clear path to the basket but opted to step back for the three and the win.
When you’ve lost nine straight games overall and 10 in a row to Villanova, the Pirates figured they would go for the jugular.
“I think it was great,” Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said of Edwin’s decision to go for the win.
“It’s been 33 days. It’s been 33 tough days. There’s been smiles but not the smiles that I saw back there, which was really nice.”
All the Wildcats could do was watch as Edwin drilled the game-winner.
“I gave him a pass a little too low. I should have called timeout myself,” Arcidiacono said of Bell’s crucial turnover. “I was thinking, but then I was like, ‘Ah, he split it. He’s going to kick it ahead and we’ll be fine.’
“I don’t know if he got tripped up or fouled or stolen, who knows? But the kid stole it, made a good play and made a shot. As soon as he put it up, I was underneath the basket and I was like, ‘Aw, that’s good. Uh oh.’”
Uh oh indeed. Edwin’s triple was the 13th of the night for the Pirates on 21 attempts. Despite making just 35.6 percent of their tries from three-point range before Monday, Seton Hall was able to hit shots at will from beyond the arc to stay in the game before pulling off the stunner in the end.
It was just another example of a Villanova team that has been vulnerable defending the three-point line all season and this time it cost the Wildcats in the worst way.
“It’s definitely frustrating. They were getting wide-open threes and we couldn’t buy a three tonight,” Arcidiacono said. “It was their night from the three-point line, but we just have to defend better.”
“The plays at the end were the plays at the end. That happens in any crazy game on the road in the Big East,” Wright said. “It was before that. It was eight threes in the first half. That’s been something that’s been our Achilles’ heel all year.”
Those open looks weren’t for a lack of effort on the defensive end. The Wildcats insisted that despite the Pirates’ position in the standings, they didn’t take the opposition lightly.
“We take every game seriously,” said Mouphtaou Yarou, who scored 14 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
The Wildcats will have a good chance to show just how serious they are about making the Big Dance when they return to the court. Villanova travels to face No. 23 Pittsburgh at noon on Sunday before closing out the regular season on Mar. 6 against seventh-ranked Georgetown.
“They’re very disappointed, very disappointed,” Wright said of his players. “That’s the Big East. That’s what you got to learn. You got to move on to the next game. I say that now. That’s not easy but you got to do it. That’s all you got left to do right now.”