Friday, March 3, 2017

Monmouth handles business in MAAC tourney opener, but possibly at a cost

Micah Seaborn's injury in second half cast a pall over Monmouth's MAAC tournament quarterfinal win over Niagara, but Hawks hope he can return for semifinal on Sunday. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

ALBANY, NY -- Throughout the season, Monmouth has stopped at nothing to get what they feel is theirs, sacrificing everything under the sun to win at all costs.

Now owners of a 17-game win streak, extended with an 84-59 victory over Niagara in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinals that places them 80 minutes away from an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Hawks' latest effort may have come at a steep price after Micah Seaborn exited the game four minutes into the second half and did not return.

Seaborn, the sophomore first team All-MAAC selection, appeared to collide with Niagara's Kahlil Dukes on the left baseline across from the Monmouth bench, and writhed in pain on the Times Union Center floor for a minute or two before being helped off the court by Je'lon Hornbeak, Josh James and trainer Vanessa Sweeney. But while it looked more severe than it may actually be, head coach King Rice did his best to reassure the Hawk faithful that all would be well.

"Micah's been playing with a torn meniscus," Rice revealed in the wake of Monmouth (27-5) dispatching their latest challenger. "It was before our second Rider game (February 7) when it happened, but he's such a kid that just wants to play basketball and not take any time off. I he think he just reaggravated it, and we're hopeful with the day off that he'll be back and ready to go on Sunday."

Such is Seaborn's toughness that Rice had to clarify again later in his postgame press conference that if his young star in the making was able to move, it would be hard to keep him off the floor against Siena or Fairfield. But in his stead, the Hawks handled the task in front of them with relative ease, turning a tie game in the latter stages of the first half into a 17-point halftime cushion thanks to a 23-6 run to close the opening stanza. The catalyst behind the spurt, though, was an unlikely choice.

Louie Pillari, whose older cousin, Dan, is a walk-on in his junior season, redshirted last year and spent his first campaign in West Long Branch as a somewhat reluctant participant in Monmouth's extravagant bench celebrations that commanded national attention. Throughout the year, Rice frequently insisted there was more to the former Christian Brothers Academy standout than met the eye, and on Friday, his conviction was rewarded as Pillari scored a career-high 16 points to lead all scorers.

"Coach Rice is always saying, 'check in for energy,' the junior Pillari explained. "I just have to thank my teammates for finding me and being able to knock down shots."

"Louie is a dynamic scorer, and he has earned a lot of minutes," Rice reiterated after watching his redshirt freshman need only 19 minutes to amass his production. "You guys are going to see a lot of him in the future. We have a lot of kids right now, but Louie can play more minutes. He's earned it and I'm just glad he's on my team, because that was awesome what he did in that first half."

The greater importance that lies in Pillari's stat line, and those of newly minted Sixth Man of the Year Austin Tilghman (10 points, four rebounds, three assists) and Pierre Sarr (eight points, six rebounds in 12 minutes) as well, is that Rice did not need to tax his starters with heavy minutes. In a tournament setting where Monmouth needs to win three games in four days to punch their NCAA Tournament ticket, having no one play more than 25 minutes Friday was especially critical.

"That's the key to the whole thing," Rice said with regard to the Hawks' abundance of depth. "I started saying it at the beginning of the year, that we had 15 kids that can play. I tried to give these guys some minutes early just because it's the tournament. The game is faster, and I thought if I could get them in the game, all of them would be capable of helping us this weekend."

At the end of the day, Monmouth simply did what they had to do, and did it well. And if they do it twice more, they will have the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but for now, Friday night's win was a tone-setter in more ways than one.

"It just builds momentum for the next game we have coming up," said two-time MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson, who posted a pedestrian 14 points but did not need to overexert himself in the Hawks' runaway victory. "We just wanted to come out and play good basketball."

Monmouth only needs 80 more minutes of good basketball for the sacrifice to truly pay off.

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