Arkansas' Moses Kingsley climbs ladder against three Seton Hall players to grab rebound as Razorbacks took advantage of late miscues to defeat Pirates in NCAA Tournament. (Photo by Newsday)
Upon his team's announcement as one of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament field, Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard spoke of the mentality the Pirates carried with them in winning eight of their last ten games, comparing the resiliency to the seventh game of a postseason series and praising his players' fortitude as they fought to solidify their at-large berth.
However, a string of ill-timed miscues and an inability to get late baskets spelled the end of the road for The Hall, who surrendered a 15-3 run to end a bitter first-round loss to No. 8 seed Arkansas in their South Regional matchup at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina.
"We had our opportunities," Willard conceded moments after the Pirates (21-12) saw a fulfilling campaign reach a disappointing end in a 77-71 loss to the Razorbacks, who will advance to face No. 1 seed North Carolina on Sunday. "We missed an offensive rebound, we missed a tip-in, we missed a little bank shot. We had our opportunities. You've just got to give them credit. They played really well."
In spite of their difficulty in closing out a win, ninth-seeded Seton Hall found a way to pull ahead once more after a Khadeen Carrington layup put the Pirates ahead, 71-70, with 1:46 remaining in regulation. The junior guard, who led Seton Hall with 22 points, committed a costly turnover nearly a minute later, when he was stripped by Jaylen Barford, who proceeded to lay it in to give Arkansas (26-9) a 72-71 lead it would never relinquish.
The Pirates then had another chance to hold for the final shot and a possible win, but Carrington was whistled for traveling shortly after a similar gaffe by the Razorbacks was not seen by the officials. Now forced to foul to extend the game, Desi Rodriguez reached in on Barford, with the legs of the two becoming tangled in the process as Barford tripped and lost his footing. Rodriguez was assessed a personal foul, but upon official review, the call was changed to a flagrant-1, giving Arkansas two free throws and the possession arrow. Barford made both attempts at the foul line as part of a rally that saw the Southeastern Conference Tournament runner-up score the game's final seven points.
"Whatever the ref's decision was, I guess that's what he believed was right," said point guard Madison Jones of the Rodriguez foul call, which expedited what turned out to be the fifth-year senior's final collegiate game. "When they replayed and looked at it, they made the call that they thought was right."
"We shouldn't have been in that situation, to be honest with you," Willard admitted with regard to having to foul. "We should never have put ourselves in that situation. We had a chance if we just take care of the ball with 1:20 left. You don't want to leave it to other people. We had the chance."
In what will ultimately be remembered in and around the Seton Hall program as a hard pill to swallow, the Pirates stood firm with their opponent in a physical game on both sides, never trailing by more than six points and fighting back to forge a 37-all halftime tie. The Hall scored the first five points after the intermission to establish their first significant advantage, but Arkansas came right back with a 14-4 run to swing the pendulum their way, seizing a 51-46 cushion with 12:46 on the clock.
Seton Hall was not done yet, though, unleashing a 18-5 spurt to open their largest lead of the afternoon, an eight-point margin with 8:41 to play once Angel Delgado's layup made the score 64-56. However, the Pirates would connect on just two field goals for the duration of the game, falling victim to five turnovers and an aggressive Arkansas defense that made up for being outrebounded by a 46-32 tally.
Moses Kingsley led the Razorbacks and all scorers with 23 points, with Barford accounting for 20 on a day where four of Mike Anderson's players posted double-figure point totals. For Seton Hall, four players joined Carrington in double digits, with Delgado's 12 points and 13 rebounds marking the junior big man's 27th double-double of the season. Jones' swan song ended with 11 points, while Rodriguez fought to record 10 points through 4-of-17 shooting, with freshman Myles Powell chipping in for 10 of his own.
"We fought as much as we could," Michael Nzei said of his Pirates' valiant efforts. "The game could have gone either way. We fought, we fought. It just went their way."
Despite the aftertaste of the loss, Willard still found the time to put things in perspective and offer a positive outlook for the program, which should be among the favorites in the Big East next season assuming no other players depart.
"I'm just so proud of what they've done for this program," the coach said of his players. "It's hard when you lose and you have a game, but that's hoops, man. That's ball, it's life. You've got to bounce back, and I've got a lot of confidence in these guys, how we'll do and how we'll bounce back next year."