Thursday, February 25, 2016

Whitehead's 25 propel Seton Hall to first 20-win season in 12 years

Isaiah Whitehead's latest tour de force ended with 25-point, 9-assist, 6-rebound outing as Seton Hall coasted past Providence for 20th win, strengthening NCAA Tournament prospects. (Photo courtesy of the Asbury Park Press)

NEWARK, NJ -- Seton Hall's last 20-win season came in 2003-04, when Tommy Amaker led the Pirates to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

A dozen years later, the newest incarnation of Pirates has reached the same plateau, and looks well on their way to hearing their name announced on Selection Sunday.

Led by yet another exceptional effort from Isaiah Whitehead, who posted 25 points to accentuate nine assists and six rebounds, Seton Hall (20-7, 10-5 Big East) wasted little time in a game it absolutely needed to win to fortify their case to be among the field of 68, demolishing 24th-ranked Providence (19-9, 7-8 Big East) by the final of 70-52 in front of a raucous Prudential Center. But while the water cooler chatter rages on, the architect of the Pirates' ship is keeping his hands firmly on the wheel, staying the course and looking ahead solely to his next contest, which comes on Sunday against Xavier.

"We don't talk about it," a blunt Kevin Willard said of the elephant in the room that is the NCAA Tournament and Seton Hall's chances of participating in it. "I don't think about it. We have to think about Xavier, Butler, and DePaul. We've got three tough games, and then my focus is on the Big East tournament, and getting the best seed we can get."

As has usually been the case this season, there were several tense moments in the second half, especially when the visiting Friars pulled within single digits of the Hall. However, unlike Sunday's near-fatal collapse against St. John's before Whitehead's late free throws helped Seton Hall escape Madison Square Garden victorious, the Pirates found a way to stem the tide after an 18-4 Providence run trimmed a 21-point lead down to seven markers, outscoring the Friars 13-2 over the final 6:22 to win going away.

"I never felt like we were in total danger," Willard admitted, even after Providence, behind 31 points from Ben Bentil, threatened to throw a wrench into Seton Hall's postseason aspirations. "I still liked where we were at. In the second half, we came out with a good sense of purpose on the offensive end, and that helped us."

So, too, did the vaunted Pirate defense, which limited Providence to just 28 percent shooting from the floor and forced misses on each of the Friars' first 15 attempts from beyond the arc. Not having Big East Player of the Year candidate Kris Dunn at full strength, as the point guard and potential NBA lottery pick battled a stomach bug that held him out of practice for the last three days, did not make matters any easier for the visitors.

"There's no mistaking we're not playing as well as we need to," Ed Cooley said, surmising Providence's recent struggles as the Friars attempt to navigate life on the NCAA Tournament bubble down the stretch. "Hopefully we can come back and get the group ready against DePaul on Saturday. It's that time of the year, and we just haven't played well. Hopefully we can get healthy, get some NyQuil, go to sleep, and wake up tomorrow with a different attitude, ready to go on Saturday."

While Providence may not have been ready to go on this night, Whitehead clearly was. The sophomore needed only 12 shots to get to 25 points, adding five three-pointers for good measure to bolster his passing and rebounding totals as he continues to emerge as the biggest threat to Monmouth's Justin Robinson in the race for the Haggerty Award, given to the best player in the metropolitan area.

"He has a unique ability when he's playing the way he's playing," said Willard of his floor general. "He makes everyone better, but he makes it very simple for them. He's matured and he's starting to understand what he means to this team, and what the point guard position means, both offensively and defensively."

"He was really motivated to get a win," the coach continued. "That's where he's matured, because in the past, it was about him. Now it's no longer about him. He understands it's about the team."

And while Willard remained tight-lipped about what the future holds for Seton Hall, Whitehead exuded a quiet confidence following his most recent finest hour.

"Our motto is, 'win games, and they can't keep us out,'" he stated.

Pirate fans undoubtedly echo that sentiment, and continue to with each passing day.

1 comment:

  1. How dare we disrespect Louie Orr?!?! To god be the glory