It's hard to imagine that just a few weeks ago, Seton Hall's dreams of dancing were in serious doubt against St. John's at Madison Square Garden. The Pirates barely survived that game against the cellar-dwelling Red Storm, a game which would have ruined their hopes of dancing at the time.
Fast-forward to Friday night, and not only is Seton Hall firmly in the dance, they have a chance to crash the party as they knocked off Xavier 87-83 in the Big East semifinals. Their second win over the top-5 Musketeers in the span of two weeks advanced the Hall into their first Big East title game in 23 years, where they'll be pitted against top-seeded Villanova on Saturday night.
Here are the 5 Thoughts:
1. "Deeno And 'Z'"
Brooklyn-born guards Khadeen Carrington and Isaiah Whitehead continued to be amazing on Friday night. Carrington hit for a team-high 23 along with seven rebounds and three assists on 8-11 shooting, 3-6 from downtown. He has now scored 50 points on 18-28 shooting in Seton Hall's two wins at the Garden over Creighton and now Xavier, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Ditto for Isaiah Whitehead, who added 20 points, five boards, eight assists, two blocks and a steal. He continued to make play after incredible play for the Pirates with nary a bad shot or decision out on the floor. He's been an absolute monster down the stretch of this season, becoming the player everyone thought he would be when he stepped onto campus. Because of he and good friend Carrington, the Hall is one victory away from a third Big East championship. There's an old saying that great guards are what win you games in the postseason. Well, Seton Hall's guards are more than living up to that saying.
2. It's Pronounced "Gor-DON"
Perhaps it should really be pronounced "Gor-DONE," as in "Derrick Gordon is getting the job Gor-DONE tonight." The Pirates' defensive leader came up big again, and this time it showed in the box score. With 10 points, four rebounds, three steals and two blocks in only 21 minutes, Gordon helped fluster the Musketeers' perimeter players throughout the game. Edmond Sumner scored 21, but on 7-23 shooting. Myles Davis had as many points (8) as he had turnovers. Trevon Bluiett got going in the second half, but was neutralized for the most part. A steady presence all year, Gordon now gets what he wanted all year since Seton Hall last faced Villanova- another shot at the Wildcats.
3. Tenacious D (Again)
The formula for Seton Hall's win tonight was similar to Thursday against Creighton- defend, defend, defend. With Carrington, Whitehead and Angel Delgado taking care of the offense for the most part, the Pirates' defense held Xavier to 30% shooting in the first half (9-30). They held to form in the second half as well despite their opponents getting a truckload of second and third shots (Xavier had 18 offensive rebounds and 14 second-chance points in the second half alone and out-shot the Pirates FIFTY-THREE to TWENTY in the period), permitting 37% shooting.
The biggest difference in the Pirates when they very nearly upset Villanova in January in Newark and the Pirates now is that they are defending at a super-high level, and despite some foul issues tonight, that held true against a deep, talented squad in Xavier. Villanova's just as deep and just as talented. So, they'd be wise to not "fix" what "ain't broke."
4. Devil's Advocate
This was a great win for Seton Hall, no question. But they sure beat around the bush finishing it off. The Pirates ended up with 25 turnovers tonight, which absolutely must be cleaned up against the Wildcats on Saturday. Villanova made Providence's stars Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil look ordinary in their semifinal matchup, and they are also playing at a high level on both ends right now. To their credit, Seton Hall was able to withstand those issues by shooting lights-out (60% in the second half) and getting to the charity stripe (20-30 in the second half). Again, I hate to be that guy, but Villanova has the horses to make the kind of late drive that Xavier made tonight if Seton Hall is in a similar position down the stretch.
5. Thorn In Their Side
That being said, I really like this matchup for the Pirates. Villanova has dominated the Big East since it was restructured, slicing through almost every opponent with relative ease and earning high national rankings in the process.
Except Seton Hall. The Pirates have been the Wildcats' most-effective foils in the early days of the "new" Big East. While Seton Hall's struggles at 'Nova are well-documented (they haven't won there since 1994 when a man named Carlesimo coached them), if you look at everywhere else, the Pirates have played the league's top dogs tough, winning three of their five matchups at arenas not named The Pavilion. That includes four games decided by a combined total of eight points, as well as Seton Hall's memorable upset of the top-seeded Wildcats two seasons ago at the Big East Tournament when Villanova was #3 in the nation.
The Pirates will be ready for what should be a raucous championship atmosphere. They have made the title game two other times, in 1991 and 1993, winning both of those games. With a bid to the Big Dance already secured, if they can knock off 'Nova again, they'll have gone from despair to the top of the mountain in just one season. What a ride, and it continues on Saturday.