Kelan Martin's 23 points and 10 rebounds helped Butler overcome career night from Isaiah Whitehead in Bulldogs' 81-75 win at Prudential Center. (Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Star)
NEWARK, NJ -- As one team looked for a fifth straight win that would firmly pad their NCAA Tournament chances, their opponent sought a third consecutive victory to further their redemptive streak in the most opportune of times.
When those two elements converge on the same floor, a great game usually unfolds, and no hyperbole intended, that was what happened at the Prudential Center on this night.
Playing a much faster style than they had been accustomed to in recent games, Seton Hall (17-7, 7-5 Big East) showed their offensive firepower that tends to get lost in the shuffle of their exceptional defense, but came up just short against Butler, (17-7, 6-6 Big East) who defeated the Pirates by the final of 81-75 for their third straight win, and fifth in six attempts against Seton Hall since joining the Big East three years ago.
"We just didn't seem to have the same energy and the same defense we've had over the last four games," Kevin Willard said as the Pirates' valiant effort, bolstered by a career-high 26 points and 10 assists from Isaiah Whitehead, went in the record books as a near-miss. "They played good, we played average; and when you play Butler and you play average, you're going to lose."
Five Bulldogs ended the evening in double figures, led by a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double from sophomore Kelan Martin. Kellen Dunham, Butler's all-Big East shooting guard, was second-highest in the point department, tallying 18 markers, 15 of which came in the second half.
"In the first half, I guess I just didn't get as many opportunities," said Dunham. "I tried to take more advantage in the second half. I'd say for the most part, I was pretty aggressive in both halves, but I think opportunities opened up when Kelan was playing well."
Butler had the advantage on the scoreboard through much of the opening stanza, but Seton Hall managed to remain in contention thanks to the hot shooting of Whitehead, who went to the intermission with 23 points on 8-of-8 shooting, making seven three-pointers in the first 20 minutes. The sophomore's lone basket inside the arc, a mid-range jumper with 4:43 on the clock before the intermission, capped off a 13-5 run that gave the Pirates a 30-28 lead at that juncture. The Bulldogs seized the momentum back with an 10-2 spurt, but two more Whitehead threes in the final minute of the first half sent both teams to the locker room tied at 38.
"He kept us in the game," Willard said of Whitehead's torrid pace, "especially in the first half. His first six three-pointers were all good, step-in threes, 'in rhythm' threes. In the second half, he did a very good job of getting everyone involved."
Whitehead's contributions out of the halftime break were more centered to the floor game that Georgetown head coach John Thompson III praised at length following Seton Hall's victory over the Hoyas this past Saturday, as he missed all of the six field goals he attempted. He did have nine of his ten helpers after the intermission, though, and Butler head coach Chris Holtmann appraised his efforts accordingly.
"We had to find a way to limit him in the second half," he divulged, "because he was an absolute monster in the first half. We tweaked a few things defensively, and he missed a couple of looks that he had. Our team was a little bit more aware of him, but you can't bottle him up for two halves. It's not going to happen, he's too good."
Seton Hall led in the early moments of the second half after a three-pointer by Khadeen Carrington, followed by a pair of Ismael Sanogo free throws put the Pirates ahead 43-40, but nine straight Butler points gave the Bulldogs the lead for good. The Hall would draw close on several occasions, but just could not get over the hump as they head for their final bye week before closing out the regular season, a stretch that begins on the road one week from tonight when the Pirates travel to Georgetown in search of a season sweep against the Hoyas.
"Win or loss, it was a good time for us," said Willard of the respite in the schedule. "We've been playing hard, had a good stretch. I still like the position we're in. We're a little better than I thought we'd be going into the last six games. It's a good time to get some rest and get re-energized."