Friday, March 11, 2016

Seton Hall holds off Creighton to reach Big East tournament semifinals

Of Isaiah Whitehead's 12 rebounds, none were bigger than offensive board off Derrick Gordon's missed free throw in final minute as Seton Hall defeated Creighton to move into Big East tournament semifinals. (Photo courtesy of Seton Hall University Athletics)

NEW YORK -- In his last visit to Madison Square Garden, it was Isaiah Whitehead who made the play of the game, coming up with a steal in the final seconds before draining two clutch free throws that kept Seton Hall's NCAA Tournament dreams alive against St. John's.

His first trip back provided more of the same, with not one, but two clutch plays at the most opportune of times to ensure the Pirates would emerge victorious.

Whitehead, who finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds, came up with a game-clinching offensive rebound after Derrick Gordon missed a free throw with 26 seconds remaining in regulation, then sprinted down the floor to block a Maurice Watson layup on the ensuing possession as Seton Hall (23-8) held off Creighton (18-14) by the final of 81-73 in a quarterfinal matchup in the Big East tournament.

"It was just about making winning plays at the end," said Whitehead, whose refuse-to-lose mentality was praised by Kevin Willard in the coach's postgame press conference. "I just wanted it more than Creighton, and I just went and got it."

Before the sophomore point guard and unanimous first team All-Big East selection came down with the ball, the Pirates were clinging to a 75-73 lead in the final minute of regulation, following a go-ahead jumper by Khadeen Carrington (27 points) that broke a 73-all deadlock. As Watson drove down the floor for the Bluejays, Carrington stripped the ball away and got it to Gordon, who was then fouled. The fifth-year senior missed both free throw attempts, with Whitehead outjumping seven-foot center Geoffrey Groselle to come away with the carom, fouling Groselle out in the process.

"That's just Brooklyn toughness," Whitehead proudly revealed. "That's just the Coney Island that came out of me."

Seton Hall needed every last drop of toughness against a Creighton team that made the Pirates sweat deep into the New York night, riding the hot shooting of Cole Huff, who finished with a career-best 35 points on 11-of-16 shooting, connecting on seven three-point field goals Thursday evening. Huff, who had been torching the nets at the "World's Most Famous Arena" throughout the game, was most dangerous late in the second half, tying the score on two separate occasions; making all three free throws when Ismael Sanogo fouled him beyond the arc, then draining a three to answer an Angel Delgado bucket and knot the score at 66 apiece.

"I think I had a lot of shots they weren't expecting," Huff said of his performance against a Seton Hall team known for its stout defense. "My teammates and coaches did a great job of drawing up plays and getting me open."

After their 14-point lead was completely erased by Huff's efforts, the Pirates picked up five unanswered points on a Carrington jumper and a clutch three in the left corner by Gordon, going up 71-66 with just over two minutes to play. But Creighton was undeterred, trading foul shots before James Milliken drew Whitehead's fourth foul behind the three-point line with 1:41 on the clock. The senior swished all three of his attempts in, bringing the Bluejays within two points before a Groselle basket 31 seconds later tied the score at 73.

Despite the tense atmosphere down the stretch, Seton Hall controlled the glass, outrebounding Creighton by a commanding 45-25 margin. In addition to Whitehead's double-figure total, Sanogo and Angel Delgado tallied eight boards each, with Desi Rodriguez adding six of his own for good measure. The Pirates also shot 51 percent from the floor in the winning effort, showing a veteran poise that willed the team to victory despite concerns from a well-known Big East analyst about Seton Hall's maturity.

"I hear Steve Lavin said we weren't mature enough," said Whitehead, referencing alleged comments the former St. John's coach and current Fox Sports 1 analyst may have made about Seton Hall. "But if you watched us in these last four minutes, that sure looked like a mature team to me."

"'Z' doesn't like to lose," Willard admitted, backing up his budding superstar. "Sometimes, he goes off. He wants to win. That's all we talk about in huddles."

"We used to talk about lobsters and cheerleaders," Willard quipped. "Now we're talking about what it takes to get a stop. This is a group that's special. I love them."

Seton Hall, in the Big East tournament semifinals once again for the second time in three years, will face Xavier in a 9 p.m. tipoff on Friday. The Musketeers walloped Marquette in the quarterfinals, and pose a strong threat to the Pirates, who defeated them at the Prudential Center on February 28.

"We've just got to focus on beating the 1-3-1 (zone) that they play," Carrington said of a strategy to defeat Chris Mack's team, which has been a top-five outfit for most of the season. "Once we get out and go, I think we can beat anybody. That's when we're playing our best."

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