NEW YORK — Kevin Willard was being interviewed on live television when Isaiah Whitehead and a couple of his Seton Hall teammates ran up and started rubbing the coach’s shaved head.
You can do that when you just led your team to its first Big East Tournament title in 23 years.
"Awesome. It’s absolutely awesome. It’s beyond words," Willard said. "I’m so happy for these kids. … They worked so hard, I’m just so happy for them."
Even the ones who interrupted the interview.
Whitehead earned tournament MVP honors after scoring 26 points, including the deciding three-point play with 18 seconds left, as the Pirates beat No. 3 Villanova 69-67 on Saturday night.
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 chances sandwiched around a free throw by Angel Delgado, but the Pirates held on to beat the defending champions in front of a sellout crowd of 19,812 at Madison Square Garden.
"This whole year Coach has been raving about just making winning plays and making winning plays," Whitehead said. "I really just attacked the basket. I felt I had an opportunity to score the ball. I mean, I saw Kris Jenkins coming over and I knew that he wouldn’t be able to get in position fast enough for me to draw a charge. I just tried to lay it in on him."
It was Seton Hall’s third Big East Tournament title, the others coming in 1991 and 1993. The third-seeded Pirates (25-8) earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, their first berth in 10 years.
And they did it by beating No. 5 Xavier in the semifinals and then Villanova for the title.
"Whoever we play just better watch out," Whitehead said. "We really defend at a high level. When we get on the break, it’s hard to stop us. It really doesn’t matter who we play; we’re up for the challenge."
Seton Hall led for almost the entire game, going ahead by 14 points in the first half and 11 at halftime. The top-seeded Wildcats (29-5) 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 and Villanova didn’t score again, turning the ball over once and missing three shots, including one that fell short at the buzzer from Ryan Arcidiacono.
"We wanted Villanova, we got `em and we beat `em," Whitehead said.
Whitehead wasn’t perfect — the sophomore guard had eight of the Pirates’ 13 turnovers. But he was still giving his coach some grief well after the game.
Willard was asked why he didn’t go up the ladder and cut down the nets with the team, and Whitehead jumped in.
"He was scared he was going to fall," Whitehead said.
Desi Rodriguez added 12 points for the Pirates, and Derrick Gordon had 10.
Jenkins led the Wildcats with 23 points, and Josh Hart had 17. Arcidiacono scored five and was 2 for 10 from the field, including 1 of 6 from 3-point range.
"Great college basketball game. Just awesome to be a part of it. The Garden was rocking," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We just got beat by a team that played better than us tonight. They played a great first half. We played a great second half, and then down the stretch, they made the plays and we didn’t. Some of the reasons we didn’t is because they made some great defensive plays."
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.
"We definitely dug ourselves in the hole in the first half," Arcidiacono said. "They played really well. We didn’t execute our game plan. You have to give them credit for the way they played. We grinded. We had a shot to win. We were up two. They called it a block, and one."
In addition to Whitehead, the all-tournament team included Khadeen Carrington and Ismael Sanogo of Seton Hall, Hart and Jenkins from Villanova, and Trevon Bluiett of Xavier.
The Empire State Building was lit in red and blue in honor of the Big East Tournament. It was the fourth time in the last five years the building has been lit in the conference’s colors on the night of the championship game.
Seton Hall: Whitehead has scored at least 20 points in seven consecutive games. … Gordon is the only player on the roster who was born the last time Seton Hall won the Big East championship. … The Pirates entered this season with five wins total over Top 5 teams. They have three this season.
Villanova: The Wildcats were 20 of 38 from beyond the arc in the first two tournament games (52.6 percent). They were 8 of 23 on Saturday (34.8 percent). … The Wildcats’ only Big East Tournament titles came in 1995 and last season.