Newark, N.J. — With their season hanging by a thread, Seton Hall used a morale-building couple of days after being “embarrassed” at Villanova to dig deep and down Providence 65-63 to squash a four-game losing streak.
Like a dog cornered with nowhere to go, there are two options: fight your way out, or die trying.
This Seton Hall team looked deep within themselves, licked the deep wounds they incurred at Villanova, and bit back tonight against the Friars in as close to a must-have game as it gets in January.
Kevin Willard said post-Villanova that the day of reckoning would come on Monday, but it was actually sooner.
“We had it Sunday right after the game actually,” said Myles Powell of the players-only meeting, after pouring in 31 points in a massive effort to save Seton Hall’s season — his words.
“We got back and watched the Villanova game and we sat down and everybody talked on the team and we just said we have to get back to ourselves. Mike (Nzei) ran the meeting, it was a great meeting, and I felt as thought that really helped us.”
Powell, who sat the final 15 minutes at Villanova admitted that “Coach was embarrassed, we all were embarrassed. We took that personal.”
But what may come as a surprise to some, the meeting wasn’t as much about X’s and O’s as it was morale-building.
“It was mainly just (about) us. We just sat down and we said ‘Guys we’ve got to get back to what we do.’ Our backs are against the wall and we’ve got to find it in ourselves and find the problem that is going on and fix it,” explained a candid Powell.
“We were just saying we’ve got to look in the mirror and ask ourselves ‘What do we bring to this team and are you doing it to the best of your ability?’ It was a great meeting, everybody came and took it upon themselves and owned up to their wrongs and that’s what I love about this team, everybody wants to win, everybody wants to be a team, everybody wants to do good.”
Kevin Willard concurred with his best player that the turnaround over the last few days has been equally about what’s going on between the team’s ears as well as what they’re doing on the court.
“I think they were all petrified about what was coming on Monday — and I had a long conversation with someone that’s much smarter than me, and he reminded me that I have five kids that are playing 30-plus minutes a game who are giving it their all, are playing their hearts out, and three of them have no experience,” said Willard, likely referring to his father.
“I went back and watched the first half of Villanova, and the only thing we did was just throw it around, but our intensity was great, we defended at a high level, and I just came in and I said, ‘Guys, the only difference between us now and us in December is the fact that we’re getting killed on the glass and we’re not taking care of the ball.’
“We did 30 minutes of box-out drills, and I told them how proud I am of them at the time. I thought we were way — for a team no one thought can be in the position that we’re in — I just had to remind them that if we rebound the basketball, we have a chance to win, but we can’t not rebound and turn the ball over.”
Seton Hall was able to pull down ten more boards than Providence tonight in a truly team effort that included nine boards from Taurean Thompson and seven from Romaro Gill off the bench.
“Monday was great. No matter what happened tonight or going forward, this team — the way they showed up Monday — we practiced for a good hour and 45 minutes hard, and they got after it, they had a great attitude,” continued Willard.
“Yesterday’s practice was great, we practiced for two hours yesterday. They were into it, their attitudes were great. To me, that’s what I was looking for. It’s not the win today — we could have got blown out today — but they had shown me what they’re all about on Monday and Tuesday.”
Despite the overall positive outcome, it was far from smooth sailing for Seton Hall on a blustery night in Newark.
After taking all the momentum into the half, Providence went on a 15-2 surge to start the second half and led by seven with 14 to play.
Seton Hall was cornered and they looked ready to keel over.
“We’re battle-tested. We’ve been in that situation before all year,” said Powell.
“We got down seven, our heads kind of dropped, we came in and Quincy (McKnight) got the huddle together and he said ‘Got these negative looks off your faces.’ So I mean, him saying that, we said ‘We’re good’ and we came out and we fought back.”
Mixing some strong defensive stops (see: Romaro Gill’s game-clinching block) with offensive urgency dictated by Powell and Seton Hall got it done, no matter how ugly it appeared at times.
“We’ve had some tough Januaries, and the one thing I’ve learned from those is to just be positive. There’s so many — like I said, after the Villanova game, I watched the first half and I was — there are so many good things that I picked up on, that I was like, ‘These kids have never been in this situation before,’ said Willard.
“They’ve never had this pressure before. This team wasn’t supposed to be here, and for me, it was just kind of reminding them — and we’re not back yet to where we’re playing — just kind of who we are, and don’t lose sight of the fact that we’ve got a long journey ahead, and you can’t get down just because some things don’t go your way.”
There is plenty of truth in what Willard said. Maybe it was luck, naivety, something else — but this team appeared to have the leadership earlier this season when things went wrong in games.
But they had to find leadership when bad events were strung together between games, something that is new to everyone on the team outside of Mike Nzei and Powell.
Tonight, in a collective effort, the tide shifted in the right direction.
“I seen it all week in practice. Everybody knew what they had to do. Everybody wanted to do their job,” said Powell of the team’s ability to come together and rediscover their roles.
“We knew we had to get this win tonight. That was on our mind. That was the big talk. Whatever it takes. If it’s diving on the ball, boxing out, because we’ve been getting tore up on the boards. Running to somebody, picking your teammate up, just any little thing to bring the fire back to this team, we’ve got to do. And I feel like everyone contributed today even if they weren’t on the floor.”
But Seton Hall is far from out of the storm just yet.
Hovering just inside the bubble according to most bracketology projections, there is plenty of work to do starting with an always tough trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday.
How do they reproduce this type of effort without losing four games as a prerequisite?
“We’re dogs. We were losing and we didn’t get that good food,” said Quincy McKnight after a long pause.
“We weren’t taking in more wins so it’s like we didn’t have that taste in our mouth. It’s one win right now, that’s a little taste of our food back in our mouth and it’s like hey, we’re still hungry.
“We want some more so we’re coming for everything. Simple as that. We’ve just got to keep dogging ‘em.”