Saturday, March 12, 2016

Willard, Seton Hall complete meteoric rise to Big East championship

Isaiah Whitehead and Kevin Willard share in celebration after Seton Hall capped off resurgent season with their first Big East championship since 1993. (Photo courtesy of Clayton Collier via 89.5 FM WSOU)

NEW YORK -- Following a furious exchange in the final seconds that would be enough to make an ordinary man's heart stop, Kevin Willard basked in what had just happened, and offered just one word for a response.

Considering that from which his Seton Hall program came, and the 23-year chasm separating Big East championships in South Orange, Willard was dead on in his assessment. After all, hardly anyone would have predicted his Pirates to survive the tumultuous depths last season plunged into, from the walkout of Jaren Sina to the alleged rift between Isaiah Whitehead and Sterling Gibbs as to whose team this truly was.

"Our whole focus this year was just trying to get better, game by game," Willard admitted once again. And if you spent enough time around Seton Hall this season, you would know it was not a cliched reply. Picked seventh in the conference's preseason poll, the Pirates were thought of as up-and-comers, yes, but in the sense of a unit who would perhaps push the envelope for an NIT bid, not the automatic NCAA Tournament berth Seton Hall clinched with a dramatic 69-67 victory over Villanova, bringing hardware back across the Hudson River with them to boot.

"The preseason stuff, we just never talked about it," the coach reaffirmed.

And Seton Hall truly did not. In fact, most of Willard's preseason talk was of how he gushed at his sophomore class working all summer to hone their respective crafts, of how proud the coach was that Isaiah Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado returned to Walsh Gymnasium mere days after their freshman campaigns came to a close, devoting themselves to fulfilling their sky-high potential.

"May 19," Willard recounted. "That's when I knew. With these kids, it was every day with us in the weight room, and by themselves at night. That was the point where I thought these guys could be special."

Wins in 12 of their last 14 contests only validate such belief, but the manner in which the Pirates captivated Madison Square Garden, feeding off their large fan base along the way, was something to behold as well. In each of their three affairs this week, Seton Hall overcame late adversity, first surviving a determined Creighton squad to reach the semifinals, then pulling away from Xavier late in the second half before finally answering the bell in the final minute against Villanova, erasing a three-point deficit that loomed larger than it appeared after a three-pointer by Kris Jenkins looked for all intents and purposes like the dagger in the hearts of the one team that has always been most formidable against Jay Wright's roster since the Big East was restructured three years ago.

"This whole year, Coach has been raving about just making winning plays," Whitehead chimed in, with none bigger than his conventional three-point play with 18.5 seconds on the clock, which gave Seton Hall the lead for good. "I felt I had an opportunity to score the ball. I saw Kris Jenkins coming over, and I knew that he wouldn't be able to get in position fast enough for me to draw a charge."

Villanova fans will argue the no-call on Josh Hart's potential game-tying layup, which was blocked by Delgado, but it was Seton Hall who did what they needed to do, who came up with the latest sequence in a dream season that now hits the dance floor, possibly close enough to New Jersey for Pirate fans to go show their support.

"It didn't hit me yet," Whitehead conceded. "I'm pretty sure when I wake up tomorrow morning, it'll probably hit me. Right now, I'm just enjoying what's going on. It's an amazing feeling."

When asked to follow up, Willard again chose only one word in summation.


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