Seton Hall will take Boardwalk Trophy back to South Orange after reclaiming it with Garden State Hardwood Classic win over Rutgers Saturday. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
NEWARK, NJ -- Myles Powell's opening statement to the throng of media gathered before him Saturday afternoon told the whole story.
"It feels good," the junior guard said after his 28 points led Seton Hall to victory against bitter in-state rival Rutgers on the Pirates' home Prudential Center floor, a 72-66 win vanquishing the emotional anguish and crosses he and his teammates were forced to bear for the past 364 days as the Scarlet Knights wrested the Boardwalk Trophy away from South Orange for the first time since the longtime adversaries were separated by conference realignment, Seton Hall remaining in the Big East after its restructuring while Rutgers spent a year in American Athletic Conference purgatory before its football program and proximity to the New York media market made it the object of affections for Jim Delany and the Big Ten Conference for which he serves as commissioner.
"They left a bad taste in my mouth for a whole year now," Powell continued, giving a crash course in the roots and significance of the blood feud between New Jersey's two biggest basketball titans, once a home-and-home series before becoming a once-a-year, non-conference showdown. "Jersey basketball is only but so big, so all the top players know each other. Knowing Rutgers beat us, and everyone walking around saying Rutgers is better than Seton Hall, I took it personal."
Powell is far from the only one to feel such a way. Last year, Ismael Sanogo famously proclaimed his hatred for the inhabitants of Piscataway, saying he and his Seton Hall teammates had no love lost for their in-state brethren, not even desiring so much as friendship from the other side. Mike Williams -- the four-year Rutgers warrior and high school teammate of former Seton Hall point guard Khadeen Carrington -- spoke of the jubilation found in exorcising the demons of three consecutive losses to the Pirates, calling last year's come-from-behind win in front of a raucous RAC crowd "the best feeling in the world." And so it goes for the two programs that, although not as heated as their animosity may have been a decade or two ago, still evoke clearly defined emotions that are plain to see regardless of whether one bleeds red or blue.
"We came out motivated," Sandro Mamukelashvili reaffirmed. "We wanted to get our trophy back."
And motivated, the Pirates were. Even as Rutgers slowly chipped away at a 15-point second-half deficit and drew as close as three points of Seton Hall, the hosts and hunters were unfazed by what lied ahead, Powell's dagger three in the left corner to turn a one-possession game into a more comfortable six-point affair with just over two minutes remaining serving as living proof that not only was last week's thrilling takedown of Kentucky not a fluke, but also that the labor undertaken in restoring a proud basketball tradition carries intrinsic value that goes far beyond the boundaries on the hardwood.
"What I told the guys was we've been the best -- besides Villanova, we've been the best -- college basketball program in the Northeast for the last five years, bar none," head coach Kevin Willard said. "It hasn't even been that close, and what we've done in this area to be a consistent winner, we take a lot of pride in that in this program. And so from that vantage point, I think these guys understood. They take a lot of pride in where we've gotten this program."
And for the moment, and the next twelve months that follow, it sits on the throne among New Jersey basketball power brokers, with a wooden testimonial to keep it company.
"It's where it's supposed to be right now," Powell said of the Boardwalk Trophy, which returns to Seton Hall after a one-year absence. "We get to wear the crown for a whole year. Seton Hall owns the state."