Coming off a Paradise Jam championship, Seton Hall expected a fight in their first game back stateside. They got one, and then some.
In the first of two consecutive games against reigning NCAA Tournament participants, the Pirates needed 39 minutes and 59.3 seconds to emerge from a battle with George Washington victorious, as Sterling Gibbs' two free throws that resulted from an offensive foul against the Colonials' Kethan Savage iced a 58-54 Seton Hall victory before a crowd of 7,774 at the Prudential Center.
"We just told our guys 'you're just going to have to battle as hard as you can possibly battle,'" head coach Kevin Willard recounted after earning his first 5-0 start in South Orange, the first such beginning for Seton Hall since 2009-10, the final season of the Bobby Gonzalez era. "They're a good defensive team. I thought they did a good job making us work and get back in transition. That's as good of a win as I've had in a long time."
The Pirates almost let their tenacious start slip away, as George Washington, who had been suffocated by the Seton Hall defense throughout the first half, came out of the intermission on a 13-5 run to take a 36-30 lead with 12:11 remaining in a matchup where neither side trailed by more than six points at any juncture. Seton Hall would then respond with a 12-2 run capped off by six consecutive points from Brandon Mobley, who was one of four Pirates in double figures with 14 points, to take a 42-38 advantage with 8:55 to go in the second half.
The next several minutes brought on a seesaw battle, with the Colonials tying the score on five separate occasions, but never once taking the lead. Seton Hall's vaunted freshman class took over down the stretch, first with the score tied at 52 and 1:55 on the clock when Isaiah Whitehead's missed jumper was scooped up and put back by fellow rookie Desi Rodriguez to give the Pirates a two-point cushion. The two teams then traded free throws before a potentially controversial offensive foul called against Sterling Gibbs gave the ball back to George Washington with 23 seconds left.
The Colonials had two final chances to win, trailing 56-53 with 16 seconds left after Rodriguez made only one of two free throw attempts, but a three-pointer from Savage that would have tied the score fell off the mark. Freshman Yuta Watanabe picked up the loose ball and drew a foul on Whitehead, making the first shot. His second rimmed out and into the hands of Angel Delgado, who registered his first double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. However, the Dominican import missed both foul shots after ripping down the carom, leaving George Washington with one more opportunity.
Racing up the left baseline, Savage tried to beat the buzzer, but was called for a charge with seven-tenths of a second remaining. Gibbs calmly drained his ensuing free throws to seal the win.
"I was just trying to get a three up there," George Washington coach Mike Lonergan said of the final possession. "I just wanted to get out of there. I didn't want overtime with the way the game was being called. That was a good win for Seton Hall, and those officials are good officials, and that had nothing to do with the loss."
Seton Hall resumes their three-game homestand Tuesday night, when defending Northeast Conference champion Mount St. Mary's comes to Newark, a game Willard cautiously warned his players not to overlook after tonight's hard-fought victory.
"We can't start looking at the fact that we're 5-0 and this is great," he advised. "We have to look at the fact that we're 5-0 and we have Mount St. Mary's next."
"We're one game above where I thought we'd be right now," Willard continued. "What surprised me is how much this group focused on the defensive end. I didn't think we'd get to that point yet. They're growing up quick, and they're doing a whole lot of great things. They're picking all the little things up and understanding the importance of them."