Photo courtesy of Seton Hall University Athletics.
By David Cordova
This is Part 4 of a six-part series on the Seton Hall men’s basketball program, as it goes through the month of December. Part 4 is talking about the big showdown against their in-state rivals and former Big East for, Rutgers, this Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, as part of the Garden State Hardwood Classic.
Things are going good this month for the Pirates, especially after their upset win against Kentucky on December 8th at Madison Square Garden. Wins like those can be a confidence booster for a program. But as the sports world knows, a team can never got complacent after a big win.
This next game would be against a foe that Seton Hall knows all too well. It was against none other than Rutgers. From 1995 to 2013, the Scarlet Knights and the Pirates played each other two to three times a year when they were in the Big East Conference. Then Rutgers moved on to the American Athletic Conference for a season, and then would make a move into the Big Ten Conference, which is now their current home.
In the all-time series, Seton Hall now leads 40-30 over Rutgers. But this game is a major game in the Garden State. It’s the battle between the blue & white and red & black. The battle between the small school from South Orange and the big state school from Piscataway.
But this game was even more personal for the Pirates. Last season, Seton Hall came into the Louis Brown Athletic Center rated the No. 15 team in the Associated Press poll and would wind up being upset by their counterparts, 71-65.
This year, they would be out for revenge at the Prudential Center, on their home turf, in front of a sold-out crowd of 10,481 raucous fans, all there for both teams. This one would be an epic game.
In the beginning of the game, Rutgers scored the first two points, but the Pirates then kept them off the scoreboard for the next four-plus minutes to build a 7-2 lead. However, they went scoreless for a period of 4:46, and an 8-0 Scarlet Knights run put them ahead, 10-7 with 11:46 left in the opening half. Then the Pirates went on an 8-0 spurt themselves, fueled by back-to-back made three-pointers from Myles Powell, to take a 21-14 lead with 6:47 to go in the first half.
A three-pointer by Sandro Mamukelashvili gave Seton Hall its largest lead of the half, 34-23, with 57.1 seconds left in the half. A floater by Rutgers freshman guard Caleb McConnell sent the Pirates into halftime up, 34-25. The Pirates’ outstanding defense held the Scarlet Knights to just 25% shooting from the floor in the opening half.
At the start of the second half, Rutgers cut the Pirates’ lead to seven points, 34-27, after a layup by freshman guard Montez Mathis with 19:33 to go. Then, Seton Hall came back with a 10-0 run, with five consecutive points from Powell, to extend its lead to 44-27 with 17 minutes left in regulation. But the Scarlet Knights wouldn’t go down easily, as they struck back for ten points to cut Pirates lead to 46-39 with 14:13 left to play, after a three by redshirt sophomore guard Peter Kiss.
From there, the game remained close. With The Hall clinging to a 61-58 lead, Powell hit his sixth three-pointer of the game to put the Pirates up, 64-58 with 2:53 left. Free throws by Mamukelashvili, Powell, Anthony Nelson and Michael Nzei would put the Scarlet Knights away, as they would win, 72-66. Powell had another big game with 28 points, as he would win the Joe Calabrese Most Valuable Player Trophy.
After last year’s defeat, the Pirates were ecstatic about the win. “They left a bad taste in my mouth for a whole year now. Jersey basketball is only but so big, so all the top players know each other. Knowing Rutgers beat us and everyone walking around saying Rutgers is better than Seton Hall, I took it personal,” said Powell.
On winning the Garden State Hardwood Classic, Powell added: “It feels good. It’s where it’s supposed to be right now. We get to wear the crown for a whole year.”
Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard also added praise about the team’s win: “I think the biggst thing is we’re definitely trying to become more consistent game in and game out. Coming off an emotional big win last Saturday [against Kentucky] and getting up for another big test, I think they showed a little maturity in a young team.”
Another Pirate that did good things in the win was Romaro Gill. Although he didn’t score much (only had two points), he added five blocks in the game. “I think Ro changed the game a little bit for us,” said Willard.
Now that they are 8-3, the Pirates are continuing their ascent into being a successful program. Although they are rebuilding after losing four key players from last year’s team, they have a chance to make noise in Big East play starting December 29th.
“Besides Villanova, we’ve been the most successful program in the Northeast the past five years, bar none,” said Willard.
Safe to say, don’t count out the Seton Hall Pirates, especially when they are in the process of making more magic this season.
Part 5 of this six-part series will talk about the addition of assistant coach Duane “40” Woodward to the coaching staff this season. Woodward, a 1998 graduate of Boston College, knows the Big East well and is well known in the tri-state area, particularly for recruiting in New York and New Jersey. Part 5 will be released on Friday, December 21st.