Showing Heart

Larry Flynn

Villanova trails Seton Hall, 53-52. 15 seconds remain on the game clock, but time is wearing thin. Josh Hart has the ball at the top of the key, surveying the floor.

Somehow – improbably, impossibly – the Wildcats find themselves in this situation. After shooting a putrid 26.9% from the field, 23.1% from beyond the arc in the first half, Villanova grinded out a comeback. They’ve taken advantage of all Seton Hall’s mistakes, recording 14 points off Seton Hall’s 14 turnovers. They’ve managed to hold Pirates big man Angel Delgado to single digit points and rebounds.

And yet – what more can they ask for? With 13 seconds left on the clock Hart swings the ball to Kris Jenkins. Yes, that Kris Jenkins – the steady, the smoove, the clutch.

Shooters shoot. Jenkins lets the ball fly, this time on the left side of the floor, as the team watches the ball sail through the air.

Hart, who just passed the ball to Jenkins takes a look at his teammates’ shooting motion. He knows Jenkins’ shot better than anyone in the arena; he notices Jenkins’ release is awkward and “knew Kris put a little too much mustard on it.” Jenkins would later admit he “got a little too excited.” No one felt it, except Hart.

What else would the top rebounding guard in the Big East Conference do but crash the glass?

Delgado and Seton Hall forward Desi Rodriguez fail to turn around and box out Hart. Perhaps they think, like everyone else in the gym except for Hart, that the ball will kiss the twine again – that Jenkins has done it again.

But history isn’t as repetitive as we expect it to be. If history were the only indicator, perhaps it’d be appropriate to flash back to the last time Villanova and Seton Hall went toe-to-toe in the Big East Tournament. Remember? Former Pirates guard Isaiah Whitehead bullied his way into the paint, coming up with an And-One to take the lead for Seton Hall. Then the Wildcats ran “Nova,” a play which failed miserably on that cold March night but would soon become immortalized in April.

For every ying exists a yang. Instead, Villanova strikes first – and last. Hart’s And-One putback, the old-school three-point play, gives the Wildcats a 55-53 lead.

This time around, the feeling of heartbreak stings Seton Hall’s heart. Delgado has two good looks on the Pirates final possession – a jump hook over his left shoulder, then a putback on the right block. Last year, Jenkins committed the crucial foul which put Whitehead at the line. This time, he plays Delgado straight up and doesn’t foul. He has learned his lesson.

Neither of Delgado’s attempts fall through the hoop. Instead, Delgado himself falls on the ground in anguish. The game was in his grasp and it had slipped so precariously away from him and his team.

Both teams make their rounds through the routine congratulatory high-five line, except for Delgado, who lays prostrate in the paint consoled by his teammates Desi Rodriguez and Ish Sanogo. Five seconds pass, then ten, then fifteen. Rodriguez and Sanogo finally help the 6’11” 240 pound center to his feet, but still Delgado can’t show his face.

Along comes Josh Hart – the sworn enemy. At first, Rodriguez is taken aback. Has Hart come to gloat and bask in the glory? Instead, Hart surprises. He wraps his left arm around the Pirates swingman and “daps up” Rodriguez. He bends down, puts his head near Delgado’s ear, and starts talking.

“You’re a hell of a player,” Hart says, tapping Delgado on his side. “You have a bright future.” It’s hard to know what to say in this moment, but Hart digs deep within himself and finds a way to strike just the right chord.

“We had this feeling last year,” Hart says. “You have this feeling now. Don’t ever have it again.”

Delgado shows his face for the first time in nearly 60 seconds. He nods his head. Delgado “daps up” Hart and embraces his competitor. Nothing need be said.

In this moment, all is forgotten. “Real recognize real.”

As quick as he came, Hart leaves. Although Seton Hall coach Kevin Williard will later remark how much he’s enjoyed “watching Hart develop as a young man,” the Big East Player of the Year doesn’t need the credit. The fruits of his generosity will manifest themselves not with words of praise but with actions.

Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson and “The Bench Mob” all follow behind Hart because, well, leaders have followers; they each embrace Delgado too.

The followers took note. It will one day be their turn to lead.