Angel Delgado holds Garden State Hardwood Classic trophy as Seton Hall celebrates 81-54 victory over Rutgers. (Photo courtesy of Seton Hall Athletics via John Fanta)
Of the last 20 meetings between Seton Hall and Rutgers prior to this afternoon, all but two of them had been decided by six points or less. Furthermore, the home team in the series had gone just 3-10 since 2008.
Today, as is the case with most true rivalries, almost all of the previous records and narratives were thrown out the window; perhaps this time, somewhat quicker than usual.
Taking the floor before a crowd of 8,710 that ranks as one of the larger gatherings in their history at the Prudential Center, Seton Hall fed off a raucous matinee atmosphere, getting a career-high 25 points from Isaiah Whitehead to lead four double-figure scorers in a thorough 81-54 thrashing of Rutgers to improve to 7-0, while the Scarlet Knights fell to 4-4 on the year.
"To be honest with you, if anybody gets the trophy, it should be the students," Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard assessed after the 27-point win fell just one marker short of the Pirates' largest margin of victory against their in-state rival, set in December of 1986 when the coach was only 11 years old. "They came out and they saw, we had maybe 3,500 students. If anybody gets the MVP, it should be our students. This was obviously a great win for our fans and for us."
The actual honors for the Joe Calabrese Most Valuable Player award, however, went to Whitehead, the talented freshman from Coney Island whose 9-of-15 shooting display included a melange of shots, from his fadeaway jumper from the left elbow and three three-pointers in the first half, to a handful of beautiful entry passes such as the one he threw to Brandon Mobley for a dunk 3:22 into the game, which put the Pirates ahead 7-6 and gave them the lead for good.
"I think they thought we were a great driving team," Whitehead remarked of Rutgers' aggressive tone on defense in the opening minutes, which in turn provided Seton Hall with a seemingly endless stream of perimeter opportunities. "They may have thought they had a great game plan. We had a better one."
After spotting Rutgers a 6-2 head start, The Hall quickly responded with a 13-2 run that not only drained whatever momentum the Scarlet Knights had built up to that point, but also forced head coach Eddie Jordan into a full timeout before the first media timeout of the game. Rutgers had cut their deficit to three points shortly thereafter, but the Pirates came back with an 18-2 spurt that extended the lead to 19 points at 33-14, effectively slamming the door on the game slightly more than halfway into an opening stanza that Seton Hall exited with a 47-25 advantage.
An 8-0 run out of the intermission that saw Mike Williams and Myles Mack; whose 15 points apiece tied for the Rutgers lead, pulled the Knights within 14 with 18:41 remaining in regulation, prompting Willard to call a timeout to check his team's pulse. Following the resumption of play, the Pirates ripped off another offensive outburst, this one being a 19-4 stretch that culminated, fittingly, with a Whitehead three-pointer that made the score 66-37 with 12:31 left in what essentially amounted to an exhibition game the rest of the way.
"We just kept trying to get dribble penetration," Willard stated of his game plan. "We tried to come out, run and trap, and get after them. We were going to get easy buckets."
With the rivalry on ice for another year, and the visually impressive trophy made of real Asbury Park boardwalk planks now on its way to a 12-month residence in South Orange, the Pirates now set their sights on their next game, arguably their biggest and most important contest of the season, in a hostile environment on the road Tuesday night against Gregg Marshall and eighth-ranked Wichita State.
"This is going to be our first road test," said Willard of the impending clash with the 2013 Final Four darling that went undefeated in the regular season last year before falling to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. "We will definitely face some adversity. They're going to get punched in the mouth Tuesday night. We're not an overly big team, I think we're going to have to battle every possession. As young as they are, I don't think there are too many guys that lack for confidence on this team."