Well, that was close.
Thanks to a late spurt and some great defense and toughness down the stretch, Seton Hall survived Georgetown 62-59 and kept their NCAA hopes alive again on a night where Angel Delgado set records and the Pirates moved over .500 in Big East play (9-8) for the first time since they were 2-1.
Here are the 5 Thoughts:
1. Two-Man Game
Seton Hall would have been sunk without their starting frontcourt of Desi Rodriguez and Delgado, who carried the entire team on their shoulders tonight. Rodriguez scored 17 of his game-high 27 points in the first half when the Pirates played their best ball, hitting shots from all over the place, some tough, some open. Delgado, meanwhile, got his usual double-double of 12 points and 13 rebounds, but in the process became the fourth player in Seton Hall history with 1,000 career rebounds (and first since Glenn Mosley in 1977), not to mention the Big East's all-time single-season rebound leader. He also passed the legendary Patrick Ewing in career boards.
On a night where pretty much the whole rest of the team struggled to get anything going on the offensive end, and with the Pirates missing an effective Ish Sanogo, both performances were needed to stem a strong second half by the Hoyas as well as overcome a poor-shooting (9-30) second half themselves.
2. Peak-ed Early
Seton Hall led this game 38-30 at the break, but watched as the Hoyas surged after halftime, eventually taking a five-point lead with 6:24 remaining and a three-point edge, 59-56, on a layup by LJ Peak at the 2:28 mark. Peak led the Hoyas with 15 points, but it was three colossal errors by him that kept the door open for the Pirates to kick down in the final minutes.
The first was not only a cardinal sin of basketball (fouling a jump-shooter), it was one of the worst fouls I've seen in years. With the shot clock winding down inside five seconds, Rodriguez had the ball well beyond the three-point line. With no choice but to pull up from beyond NBA three-point range, Peak did the unthinkable and fouled Rodriguez on his shot, with Desi making two of three free throws to get within one. Up by 3, on the road inside two minutes remaining with the shot clock winding down and the man with the ball attempting a shot that only Stephen Curry hits with any regularity, it was just an awful, awful foul if you're a basketball purist (like me).
On the next two Hoyas possessions, Peak turned the ball over both times, compounding his previous mistake and allowing the Pirates to take the lead and then win the game. Which brings me to....
3. Toughing It Out
There haven't been too many Seton Hall games this year that have been very pretty, but this team continues to find ways to get it done. Players have transferred, leaving the Pirates' bench thin. Various key players have had off nights. Their backs have been against the bubble for about a month or so, amping up the pressure to perform. And they still soldier onward.
Case in point- Ish Sanogo even somehow played seven minutes despite dealing with a sprained ankle, something head coach Kevin Willard called "a miracle." But that's just the latest example of the Pirates' incredible grit. "Toughness" was the word that Willard used when asked to describe his team this year in one word, and he's right. Without it, Seton Hall would have faded under the hot lights of the Big East schedule.
The Pirates has now won seven one-possession games this season, and tonight, down five with 6:24 remaining, the defense clamped down and held the Hoyas to just one basket (Peak's aforementioned layup at the 2:28 mark) the rest of the way. That's been a refrain this year, and certainly the above toughness has a large part to do with it.
But when it gets to "winning time," Seton Hall has responded. Maybe it's having a core of upperclassmen who are driven by a desire to win and their own closeness with each other off the floor, maybe they've just been fortunate to make plays when they absolutely need to. Either way, the "clutch gene" is hard to find and even harder to adequately put into words, but the numbers don't lie- the Hall has had it on their side.
5. Bubble Talk
We said heading down the home stretch that the Pirates could not afford to lose against Xavier, DePaul or Georgetown, and Seton Hall won all three games. With their resume, that puts them on a favorable side of the bubble by most projections (Joe Lunardi's last bracket had the Pirates in the "Last 4 In" category). They've done what many folks said they needed to do when they sat at 3-6 in the league- take care of business against the teams they "should" beat, and snatch big RPI home games against Creighton and Xavier. Their last regular season game is at Butler, and while no one expects them to do it, a win over the ranked Bulldogs on the road would likely seal the deal for the Hall.
Recent history means that I will be a little gun-shy about it, but at the very least, the fact that Seton Hall seems to be trending upward and is on the right side of that bubble picture means that I have a better feeling about it this time around than, say, 2012, when it was a near-miss thanks to a late-season swoon. We'll talk to you next from Madison Square Garden when the Pirates will look to defend their conference title.