Sunday, February 21, 2016

Seton Hall blows 19-point lead before coming back to escape St. John's

Desi Rodriguez erupted for career-high 24 points as Seton Hall built big lead before losing it and coming back to narrowly defeat St. John's, 62-61. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

NEW YORK -- It was a must-win game for a team with serious NCAA Tournament aspirations, and for 30 minutes, Seton Hall acted the part of one of the 68 best teams in the nation.

Then, their advantage crumbled, much like the cookies served in the Prudential Center media room during halftime. But luckily, fate intervened in a positive way before the final buzzer.

Leading 28-9 with just over seven minutes to play in the first half, Seton Hall was in total control, threatening to run St. John's out of Madison Square Garden. But the relentless attitude that has embodied the Queens school that bills itself "New York's College Team" was on full display, carrying the Red Storm to a late second-half lead before the Pirates (19-7, 9-5 Big East) survived on two free throws by Isaiah Whitehead in the final seconds, squeaking by with a 62-61 victory that dropped St. John's to 8-20, and 1-14 in league play.

"This was the game that I looked at over the last week and a half that I thought was going to be our toughest game," head coach Kevin Willard remarked after Seton Hall made just five field goals after halftime, allowing St. John's to erase the Pirates' 19-point cushion that looked insurmountable when the Red Storm were unable to get shots to fall in the opening stanza. "Watching all the film and watching all the games, I thought St. John's was playing harder than anybody else in the conference at the time. That was just an old-school, grind-it-out game, and both teams played extremely hard. We got lucky enough to make free throws at the end."

In the first half, the odds of this game being decided on free throw shooting; which both teams struggled with in a combined 28-for-54 effort, were highly unlikely after Desi Rodriguez scored 19 of his career-high 24 markers to give Seton Hall a comfortable 36-22 advantage heading to the locker room.

"My teammates were just finding me like they always do, and I was just able to knock down shots," said Rodriguez, who bested his previous career-high total of 21 points, set earlier this season against Xavier. "I was trying to be aggressive. Coach wanted me to bring a lot of energy on the offensive and defensive end, so that was my main focus."

St. John's made adjustments in the last 20 minutes, shifting to an inside game in the second half as the Red Storm got each of Seton Hall's forwards in foul trouble. Rashed Anthony, who racked up four fouls before halftime, was the first to foul out, followed by Angel Delgado, who scored just two points before his departure with 8:05 remaining in regulation. The Red Storm also forced Ismael Sanogo out of the game in the waning seconds, but even with a 16-point, 15-rebound outing from forward Kassoum Yakwe, it was not the front line who was responsible for the shift in tactics.

"Most of their guards fouled out our big guys," said Willard. "It wasn't their bigs that got us. Their guards were running into us. I thought (Felix) Balamou did a good job of running into our bodies and drawing some block calls."

Nonetheless, a 12-4 run capped off by a Yankuba Sima layup gave St. John's a 55-54 lead with 3:45 on the clock. Following several free throw exchanges between both teams, Yakwe's basket with 58 seconds left put the Red Storm ahead 60-57, and as he drew what became Sanogo's fifth foul, there was a sense that Seton Hall's at-large hopes were all but extinguished. The freshman missed the free throw, and the Pirates pulled within one on the ensuing possession, as Khadeen Carrington drained a jumper as Rodriguez tipped a missed drive by Whitehead into his fellow sophomore's hands.

Seton Hall forced a turnover on the next trip down the floor, as Malik Ellison was unable to handle the Pirate pressure. However, the visitors could only get one point out of it, as Whitehead made only one of his two foul shots that soon followed. St. John's poked its head back in front on one of two at the line by Durand Johnson, making it 61-60, but Yakwe's offensive rebound after Johnson's miss was stripped by Whitehead, giving the highly touted Lincoln High School product his sixth steal of the afternoon. As he was going for the ball, he drew a foul on Ellison to get back to the line with a chance to win.

"It wasn't set up to where I just got the ball," Whitehead said of his battle for possession before drawing the foul. "I just saw the ball and I just attacked it, and it ended up in my hands."

Whitehead made both free throws, and St. John's called its final timeout with 2.6 seconds on the clock to set up a game-winning attempt, and eventually got the ball inside to Sima. The 6-11 freshman was unable to get a shot off, though, and the Pirates escaped in every sense of the word, emerging with a hard-fought win and their dreams of dancing for the first time in a decade still intact; bent, but not broken.

"That felt like an NCAA Tournament game right there," said Derrick Gordon, whose defensive contributions complemented his 10 points off the bench. "We stayed together, and especially in an atmosphere like this, I kept telling Isaiah and Khadeen that we can't lose our edge. We can't stray away, no matter how much we're down by. We're going to come back and win this game."

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