"We didn't play defense as well as we wanted, especially in the first half, and when you're in the NCAAs or the Big East tournament, you've got to bring it right from the start," said Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono.
The Wildcats, who entered the tournament ranked No. 3 in the nation and virtually assured of the top seed in the East Region, may drop down a line when the NCAA field is announced, but will be among the favorites to have a successful run.
"I've always said we're a good team that can go deep in the tournament, but I've also said we can get beat," coach Jay Wright said.
Villanova, now 28-4, started off very sluggishly against Seton Hall, allowing the Pirates to shoot themselves out to a 15-point lead midway through the first half. The Wildcats came back to make it an eight-point game at halftime and really turned up their defensive intensity in the second half.
They went on a 16-0 run in the second half, capped by a Darrun Hilliard three-point shot, to put themselves in position to take control of the game, but their offense stalled and the game became a shootout with the lead changing hands on each of the last four possessions.
"The difference between winning and losing is so small," Wright said. "If Gibbs doesn't hit that shot, we say, 'Ah, we got through it.' We had the right guy on him, Hilliard. We had size on him. He just hit a big shot."
If Villanova had played its normal game, it wouldn't have come down to that shot. But the Wildcats allowed Seton Hall to get some flow to its offense in the first half and build the cushion that made it a game at the end.
Villanova, a team that normally relies heavily on its three-point shooting, was just 4 for 19 from three-point range, but also didn't take advantage of the inside game that Seton Hall was conceding as it concentrated on guarding the perimeter. The Wildcats missed 11 free throws, also uncharacteristically, and saw James Bell, their second leading scorer, suffer through an 0-for-8 game from the field.
"We took open shots. We just weren't making them," Arcidiacono said. "The second half, we picked up our defense and that's where we were getting some easy buckets and layups. But we got the shots we wanted. They just weren't falling."
Villanova's previous three losses were all to ranked teams - twice to conference rival Creighton and once to Syracuse. This loss to Seton Hall, which came in with a 16-16 record and an RPI ranking of 148th in the nation, marks the first time the Wildcats might be tempted to doubt themselves.
"This one's going to be easy to learn from," Wright said. "It was the way we started the game. We talk about it all the time, but now it bites you and we only have one more chance to do that."