NEW YORK — These Pirates are a proud posse of party crashers.
Seton Hall got one of its biggest wins in many a year on Friday night when it beat No. 5 Xavier 87-83 to advance to its first Big East tournament title game since — can you believe this? — 1993.
It’s just the third Big East championship game showing in school history.
Kevin Willard’s team will go up against 29-4 Villanova, which it beat on Feb. 24, on Saturday night for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“It still hasn’t hit me,” Willard said of the achievement.
The Hall was a 6 seed in the big bracket entering Friday, according to CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm. Which means it should be a 5 now.
Seton Hall played without abandon, with confidence and beat Xavier for the second time this season. This looked like a Sweet 16-level team. Isaiah Whitehead, the prized recruit of Kevin Willard’s 2014 recruiting class, is looking like the NBA prospect he always dreamed of being. Whitehead finished with 20 points, eight assists and five rebounds. SHU was led in points by Khadeen Carrington’s 23.
Xavier had a team-high 17 from freshman Edmond Sumner. This squad, which is capable of reaching a Final Four, did not look up for the game. X has been one of the steadiest teams all season, but similar to the way it got beat by SHU on Feb. 28, it looked too careless.
“It helped that we played them 12 days ago,” Willard said.
The Musketeers finished with 16 turnovers, shot 35 percent from the field and missed, by my count, at least 10 shots within five feet of the rim.
Xavier made another late run to get the final score close, but it was all Hall from the jump ball. The Pirates got out early, led by as many as 17 (34-17 with 5:45 to go in the first half) and pushed back hard once Xavier cut the deficit to four in the second half. But every time Xavier edged close, Seton Hall had a response by Whitehead, Carrington or Angel Delgado, a power forward who’s become one of the most underrated paint players in the country.
“They punked us,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “The first eight minutes of the game, our offense really, really allowed Seton Hall to be at their best. Whether they were deflecting passes, whether it was our quick shots. When you put Seton Hall in transition, you’re asking for trouble. That’s exactly what they gave us.”
For Willard, the win amounts to the biggest of his career. This is his sixth season with Seton Hall. He, in all likelihood, needed to reach the NCAAs to keep his job. Not only will he do that, but he’ll get there with a team that has a chance to do something that hasn’t been done by the Pirates in 16 years: reach the second weekend.
I understand that a lot of people are not going to give Seton Hall much of a close look. It’s a team that hasn’t been relevant in recent years, and Whitehead’s not enough of a star on the national level to where it will really cause people to buy in.
“He’s a monster,” Mack said. “He’s the best player in the league. Put that down. I voted for him. He’s the best player in the league. He is. He is the real freakin’ deal.”
After tonight, this team will rank top-15 in the country in defense and will have players (Whitehead, Carrington) capable of showing up in big moments.
“Still not listening to it,” Carrington said of the outside opinion of this team. The whole group has an emotional connection. Willard told me afterward that it can sometimes be “too close” because of how invested they get. It might take an upset of Villanova to convince the majority of this team’s ceiling and capability. Hey, Seton Hall’s only made the Big East final twice, and both times it got there? Won the thing.