NEW YORK — There is plenty more to mull over as the dust settles on Seton Hall’s big-time 84-83 win over No. 9 Kentucky.
Seton Hall grew up a lot today. Just ask Isaiah Whitehead, who would know a thing or two about upsets at the Mecca (he predicted a win in an earlier tweet). Freshman Jared Rhoden played big minutes off the bench due to Mike Nzei and Sandro Mamukelashvili foul trouble. Anthony Nelson logged some key minutes, particularly in overtime. Myles Cale gets a mention of course, as he made the first big shot of his career after a sluggish start to his sophomore year. And Myles Powell stepped up in the overtime huddle, emerging as the team’s leader on and off the court.
Where does Seton Hall go from here? Rutgers, who lost at Fordham by eight today, is up next in a week’s time before Sacred Heart and then a trip to top-30 Maryland close out the non-conference schedule. It certainly looks like the team has rebounded mentally from their two close home losses and beating Kentucky at the Garden is as big of a platform as it gets to build upon. Miami is looking less like a notable win by the day — they’ve lost four straight including games to Penn and Yale — so beating Rutgers and the other SHU is the bare minimum if Seton Hall wants some non-conference help come Selection Sunday. Traveling to Maryland with an 8-3 record and a chance for a third solid win away from home would set the stage for a big one to close out non-league play.
Kevin Willard coached a heck of a game. From shutting Kentucky down defensively in the first half, to managing mission-critical foul trouble, to pulling the right strings in end-of-game scenarios (except for defending UK’s game-tier, see below), Willard coached a great all-around game. The only topic up for debate that I can think of is his decision to ride a veteran Quincy McKnight (15 pts, 5 asts, 6 TOs) rather than turning to freshman Anthony Nelson after McKnight looked very shaky under Kentucky ball pressure. Overall, it’s very hard to complain about what could be Willard’s best win as a head coach.
Myles Powell’s performance after the half should be talked about by fans for a long time. If only Kentucky didn’t respond, his shot at the end of regulation would have been a classic, but the obvious positive is that it provided the team a huge bounce-back moment that can only be learned via experience, and it set up Myles Cale with the shot of his life to date. Powell’s performance was Terry Dehere-like.
This was a Madison Square Garden classic. The “World’s Most Famous” phrase gets thrown around a lot and the hype is sometimes a bit much, but today’s game was unforgettable. Naturally, a sloppy and defensive-minded first half set up an incredibly entertaining final 25 minutes that was a roller coaster for fans and neutrals alike. I heard “That was the best game I’ve seen in a long while…” from several MSG staff members and fans while traversing the Mecca post-game. I concur.
Kevin Willard on the team’s effort and what it says: “I think playing Saint Louis, playing Louisville, losing those games were tough, but this group has– what I like about this group more than anything is they stay– they continue to work, and that’s kind of how I set this schedule up. I needed to get these guys battle-tested, so I loved this game. The fact that it was Kentucky was huge, but to get them in the Garden and get them Garden experience, get them ready for the Big East tournament, there’s just something special about this place and the first time you play in it when you’re freshmen or even sophomores, it can be nerve-wracking. It’s a big win. I’m really proud of the way they fought and the way they played.”
Willard when asked if this is the biggest win of his career: “I think it’s an important win for this year. Every win’s big, it really is. I actually — and you guys are going to think I’m nuts — I think the New Hampshire game for us was big, because it gave us some confidence again. Playing this game is great, because again, it shows how far we’ve come as a program. I had a hard time getting games early on. I think I played this game because I lost four seniors, too. That could have been it, too. I kind of do that every once in a while.”
“It’s great. It feels great, it’s important for this season, it’s important for this group. It shows them they’ve — no matter what, they’ve continued to work hard. I love this group, it’s one of my favorite groups I’ve ever been around because they’re good kids, they play hard, but they continue to work even though we’ve had some hiccups early, they’ve continued to show up to the gym with a great attitude, and that’s all I ask. I knew eventually they were going to get it and they’re going to get better, and they’re starting to get there. We’re not there yet, we’re still a long way away.”
Willard on playing at the Garden and the team being 9-3 there since the start of the 2015-16 season: “It’s amazing — there was a little kid when I was doing the radio — a little kid running around the court, and his mom and dad were taking pictures. I told him — I think he was six or seven — and I said he would remember that for the rest of his life, because I still remember being — I was running around this building when I was in third grade. I still remember running around this building when I was in third and fourth grade, and I can remember every second of it. it is a magical place. It’s one of those places that I think the kids understand the history. It’s not a brand-new building, it’s not something that was just built and has all the bells and whistles, it has such history and nostalgia and so many great players, concerts. I say it all the time: When you walk in this building, there’s a different energy, and I think both teams played unbelievably hard. These kids left it all out there, and it was just — either team could have won — it’s just a magical place. I think it always happens here.”
Willard on Kentucky’s game-tying shot: “I was so mad. It was my fault. I’ve never, ever put a guy on the ball. We practice with a free safety. It makes no sense having a guy on the ball, and I’ve never had a seven-footer, so I thought I’d be smart. And I didn’t even have Ro (Romaro Gill) going in, I had Shavar (Reynolds) going in to play defense and be the free safety, and then it took so long for them to review it that I had too much time to think, and I said, ‘let me out-think myself.’ And I put Ro in, and it was just stupid. The one thing you try to cover is the middle of the floor in that situation because if a guy’s shooting at a sideways angle, the odds of him banking it in are almost zero. But if a guy shoots it straight on, the odds of him banking it in go up a lot, and it was just a good shot.”
Willard on why he ditched his suit before the press conference: “I started it. It was me. They got me at Miami, I got them here, so I started it. I can’t blame them for throwing the water, I threw the water first.”