Boy, oh boy- where to begin with this one? The Seton Hall Pirates and their New York City-laden sophomore core came to Madison Square Garden, and for one half looked like they would handle local rival St. John's as easily as they did the first time in Newark. But St. John's stormed back (no pun intended) by taking firm control of the paint on both ends of the floor, while the Pirates floundered on offense.
Down three after an and-1 by Kassoum Yakwe (more on him in a bit), the Pirates came back, and Isaiah Whitehead sunk two game-winning free throws with five seconds left, lifting the Pirates to a 62-61 win in a must-win game for them and their NCAA Tournament hopes.
To go with it, there was your normal intense, NYC hoops, old-school feel to the game, questionable officiating that benefited both sides, and a scrum (mostly pointed words, so we were told) in the postgame handshake line. Here we go:
1. Kassoum and 'Kuba
Let's start off by giving full credit to St. John's forwards Kassoum Yakwe and Yankuba Sima, who made life a living hell for the drive-based Pirates offense in the second half. Yakwe ended up with about as quiet of a huge double-double as you will ever see (16 points, 15 rebounds, 9 on the offensive glass) with four blocked shots. Sima had four points and three more rejections of his own as the Pirates just never found a rhythm after the break. They led St. John's back into it, and should provide Chris Mullin and company a solid defensive foundation for years to come.
2. Desi Delightful
Now to the Pirates' side. The story of the first half was Desi Rodriguez, who was locked in with his shot today. He scored 19 in the first half alone, knocking down all four of his triples in the game's first 20 minutes. He ended up with a career-best 24 on 8-10 shooting, although he didn't score for the last 15 minutes of the game. It was a good thing he did his damage in the first half, though, because Seton Hall really needed it on a day where not a lot really went the Pirates' way offensively.
3. Close Call
One of the strange things about this season that has even carried over for the most part in conference play is that the Pirates haven't really been involved in a lot of games like this one on Sunday where things came down to the wire. Not only did the Pirates survive a bad loss that would have all but torpedoed their chances of returning to the Big Dance for the first time in a decade, they did it by coming back from DOWN three points with a minute left. The difference between this year's Pirates and Seton Hall teams of yesteryear is their resolve. I have seen similar situations in the past and previous Pirate teams would not have handled this adversity well. This team did, fighting back despite an abundance of foul trouble that saw Angel Delgado and Ish Sanogo, as well as Rashed Anthony, all foul out of the contest.
Speaking of that....
4. Close Call(s)
There will be a lot said among the fans of particularly the Red Storm about the end of this game. A solid crew of Roger Ayers, Evon Burroughs and Matt Potter had a seemingly off night, calling several fouls on both teams that really didn't seem like fouls from where we were sitting. Among these was a big rejection on a Sanogo dunk attempt that was whistled a personal on Sima and a couple of the five fouls Delgado ended up with in the game.
All that paled in comparison to the last minute or so. Isaiah Whitehead took a couple dribbles into the chest of Malik Ellison, and with very little contact, a foul was called that sent Whitehead to the line (he made 1-2 to tie it at 60). Then on the next possession, Seton Hall tried to trap Durand Johnson in front of the scorer's table and Carrington was whistled for a touch foul, sending Johnson to the stripe (there were 52 fouls called in the game, 26 on both teams and 31 total in the second half, so both teams were in the double bonus for a long time).
The coup de grace for St. John's fans was in the ensuing play after Johnson missed his second free throw. There was a mad scramble for the ball, Whitehead ended up with possession in a sea of Red Storm players and (and this is just from personal memory) appeared to swing his elbows to try and get out of the crowd. A St. John's player hit the deck, but it was St. John's Ron Mvouika who was called for the personal foul. Down 61-60, Whitehead stepped to the line and knocked down both to eventually win the game for the Pirates when they deflected the following inbounds pass with two seconds left.
The fans were hopping mad and mercilessly booed the refs as they walked off the floor right near where media were seated. And that wasn't even the ugliest part of the end of the game...
5. The Handshake Line
After everything was said and done, apparently more was said between the two teams in the handshake line that led to both teams having to be separated from each other. It was a rough end to a rough game. The teams played rough. The officiating was rough. The environment of the Garden only heightened everything. One must wonder whether the bad tempers will linger into whenever the next meeting between these teams may be.
Bottom Line: Very simply, the Pirates survived. Whitehead was 8-10 from the line to offset his 1-12 shooting performance, but also added three rebounds, three assists, two blocks and six steals to help the Pirates to the win, and his line kind of tells the story of the game for Seton Hall- it sure wasn't pretty, but pretty doesn't count when it comes to March Madness. This team has real hopes of dancing next month and a loss to last-place St. John's would have torpedoed those chances. The Pirates now have home dates with Providence and then Xavier before road games at (gulp) Butler and DePaul. Every game is critical this time of the year, and Seton Hall will have the resolve they showed today sternly tested. But they got out of Dodge with a win today, and that's what counts.
Quotes from Kevin Willard (Seton Hall head coach):
"This was the game that I looked at over the last week and a half and thought this would be our toughest game. My New York kids coming back to the Garden and I... thought St. John's was playing harder than anyone else in the Big East. That was just an old-school, grind-it-out game- both teams played extremely hard. We got lucky enough to make free throws at the end."
On the postgame confrontation: "Just two teams that battled really hard. There was nothing to it. Sometimes that happens. I think that's why in the NBA everyone just walks to their locker rooms. Sometimes the handshake probably isn't the greatest idea."