March 16, 2014
There is something special about collegiate sports, something that ties the collective to the name on the front of the jersey rather than celebrating the one on the back. During basketball season, never is this unifying power more apparent than in March.
Though the Seton Hall men's basketball team came up short of its ultimate goal to take home a BIG EAST championship, what head coach Kevin Willard's team was able to accomplish in three short days transcends any hardwood court or arena, even one as grand as Madison Square Garden.
The Hall headed into New York City coming off a 71-54 loss at Butler, one which capped a regular season that like the one before it, had often featured a shorthanded squad. The Bulldogs' win helped ensure the teams would meet again in the first round of the BIG EAST Tournament, the 34th in program history for the Pirates.
As the eight-seed in a 10-team tournament, pundits expected little from Seton Hall who had finished with a 6-12 record in conference play. Finally healthy and with more close games under their belt than any team in more than three decades, The Hall was intent on making a charge and adding a new chapter to a storied basketball history that dates back over a century.
As the team took the floor for its opening round matchup with Butler, the five players who awaited the tip represented the 20th different starting lineup that Willard had employed in 2013-14. The offense started fast early, with the senior tandem of Fuquan Edwin (Paterson, N.J.) and Brian Oliver (Glassboro, N.J.) helping to open a 9-4 lead just over four minutes into the action. As the defense tightened on both ends, the Pirates managed only seven points over the next 10 minutes, but never trailed.
With the score knotted at 16-16, center Eugene Teague (Vineland, N.J.) hauled down an offensive rebound and stuck in a put-back as he had so many times before over his two years in blue and white, starting a 7-2 run that helped Seton Hall take an advantage into the locker room.
Still, the gap was only one at 23-22, a position the Pirates routinely found themselves in throughout the season.
The Pirates shot out of the gate in the second half as Edwin, Teague, Patrik Auda (Brno, Czech Republic) and Jaren Sina (Lake Hopatcong, N.J.) engineered a 17-to-6 stretch that pushed the score to 40-28 in favor of The Hall. Butler would tally 18 of the next 26 points however, and with the Bulldogs clicking and the lead down to 48-46 with 4:41 to go, the possibility of an early exit started to creep into the equation.
Down the stretch though, the Pirates were the team that made the winning plays. With Seton Hall up three, Sina found Teague for his fourth bucket of the second half to make the score 51-46 at the 2:12 mark. The Pirates would not score again, and leaned on a defensive effort that had been stout over the course of the entire game to lead them home.
A Kellen Dunham layup pulled Butler to within 51-50 with 46 seconds remaining and after Sterling Gibbs (Scotch Plains, N.J.) misfired on a 3-pointer late in the shot clock, Butler pushed the ball down the floor looking to take the lead for the first time since the opening two minutes.
With what may have been the final pass prior to an easy basket in transit; Edwin came up with perhaps the most impactful of his 294 career steals. The pivotal pilfer forced Butler to foul and in the end, the Bulldogs were left with a half court heave that was off the mark as Seton Hall picked up its fourth postseason victory in as many years under Willard.
Survive and advance. After seeing five of their previous seven one-point games enter the loss column, the Pirates had broken through and earned the right to go head-to-head with a Villanova squad that finished atop the league and had set school records for conference wins (16) and regular season victories (28).
Around 14 hours elapsed between when the final buzzer signified the end of the win over the Bulldogs and the opening tip with the Wildcats, but a resilient Pirates squad was ready. Seton Hall blitzed Villanova from the jump, needing less than 10 minutes to build a double-digit advantage as Gibbs knocked down a trey that made it 22-11 at the 10:41 mark. A Gibbs lay-in just over three minutes later gave The Hall its largest lead of the half at 30-15 and though the Wildcats would put together an 11-4 run to end the period, eyeballs around the nation began to take notice as Seton Hall led 34-26 at the break.
The Pirates' dominance continued over the first six minutes of the second half and a triple by Brandon Mobley (Savannah, Ga.) followed by a Teague finish from in close put the Hall in front 44-31 and firmly in the driver's seat against the third-ranked team in the country.
As good teams do, Villanova refused to acquiesce, responding with 16 unanswered points that culminated in a Darrun Hilliard 3-pointer that made the score 47-44 in favor of the top seed. The final minutes closed in a fashion similar to a prize fight as the teams traded blows, electrifying the Madison Square Garden and conjuring memories of BIG EAST Tournaments past.
The Hall had taken the Wildcats best punch though and behind the duo of Edwin and Teague, charged back with six-straight points to reclaim the lead. As baskets were traded, the teams were tied four times in the final six minutes alone. Josh Hart broke the final tie for Villanova with a layup that made it 61-59 but Gibbs found Sina in the corner on the next possession and the freshman was dead-on with a three that put The Hall back on top.
Hilliard hung and hit a floater in the lane to give Villanova a 63-62 edge in the final 10 seconds and with just over three ticks left, Seton Hall called a timeout in possession in the front court. As Willard and his staff reminded their squad of instructions they had gone over thousands of times on the practice court, the moment was building around them.
30 Seton Hall teams had previously tried to knock off a team ranked in the top-three in the country, but none had succeeded.
Never before had there been a bigger disparity in regular season records in a BIG EAST Tournament game where the lower seed prevailed.
Nearly 20,000 fans were on their feet.
Media outlets across the country were frantically sending out alerts that a potential #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament was on the brink of elimination.
Despite all the surrounding factors cluttering the atmosphere, the essence of the moment was simple - execute and win. The ball was inbounded to Gibbs who dribbled to the center of the floor, created space with a step back and sent this Seton Hall team into the record books with a jumper that connected with nothing but net as time expired to give the Pirates a momentous 64-63 victory.
The immediate response was pure elation. Gibbs scaled the scorer's table. Several players circled the MSG floor and those in attendance were joined by Seton Hall alums everywhere in being reminded of what it means to be a Pirate.
A battle-tested group, it was Seton Hall's ninth one-point game of the season and second one-point win in a 24-hour span.
The Pirates' win had shocked everybody, except themselves. In the locker room postgame, Willard summed up the team's mindset when he exclaimed "that's what we do!" seconds before receiving an impromptu shower from his players.
In a news cycle that has come to be defined by how quickly the focus shifts, a catholic school from South Orange dominated the national consciousness and the Seton Hall name was on the tip of tongues everywhere.
As news hit of the victory hit, reaction poured in from prominent Seton Hall alums all over the globe.
Seton Hall Basketball with the huge upset tonight over Villanova. Congrats @SHUAthletics!!— Sacha Kljestan (@SachaKljestan) March 13, 2014
Gibbs would later characterize the shot as a "big time" play, perhaps struggling to put it in perspective with another game on the horizon. Now, after the season has concluded, this is as good a time as any to reflect on what these Pirates were able to accomplish.
It was Seton Hall's first BIG EAST semifinal appearance since 2001 and the first win for the program over the #1 seed at the tournament. The Hall posted consecutive victories at the tournament for the first time since 2003, pushing their total of postseason victories to five under Willard after totaling just three in the eight years prior.
The program's all-time steals king, Edwin capped a storied career by becoming the second Seton Hall player to be named BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year joining Jerry Walker who took home the award in 1993. In scoring a team-high 20 points against eventual conference champions Providence, he passed Pirate great John Morton for 12th all-time on the school's scoring list and will graduate as one of seven Seton Hall players with more than 1,500 points and 600 rebounds.
Teague's breakout performance at the tournament illuminated what fans had been treated to over the past two seasons. The center controlled games in a way that was reminiscent of an era in the BIG EAST where during its ascension; the league was unquestionably the premier destination for budding big men. He became the first Pirate named to the All-Tournament team since the late Eddie Griffin in 2001 after posting averages of 14.7 points and 9.7 rebounds and recording two double-doubles.
Most importantly, this squad came together and played with a determination that honored the Seton Hall name, invigorating a loyal fan base that takes great pride in the program's tradition. Each player called upon last week rose to the occasion in his own way and served notice that not only is the magic is still very much alive within the BIG EAST Conference, but The Hall is a program on the rise as well.