Greenville, S.C. — The unraveling was already in progress, but a hard foul turned flagrant one with under a minute to play put the icing on a bitter cake as Seton Hall fell 77-71 to Arkansas in a gut-wrencher.
At the end of the day, the stakes weren’t as high, but the loss will rank up there with Michigan and Western Kentucky in the archives of tough pills to swallow for the Hall.
“We shouldn’t have been in that situation, to be honest with you,” said Kevin Willard of the tough calls his team was handed down the stretch.
“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.”
And that just about sums it up.
Last season, the Hall was buried early by Gonzaga after Isaiah Whitehead started off on the wrong foot, but their first tournament win in over a decade was ripe for the taking today.
“I feel like we had the game, when we were up eight or so,” lamented Khadeen Carrington, who scored 22 but made a pair of key mistakes down the stretch.
“Last year, the game wasn’t close at all. I feel like we had the game.”
To Arkansas’ credit, they were as feisty a team as Seton Hall was during the season.
The Pirates took a lead once in the first half but a 6-0 Arkansas run put the brakes on that.
Coming out of the half tied, Seton Hall then scored five straight to take their second lead which again was answered by a 9-2 Razorback run.
Looking to harness some third-time’s-a-charm St. Patrick’s Day luck, the third time Seton Hall took a lead midway through the second half, it appeared they had wrangled a hard-fought game for good.
But Seton Hall’s first NCAA tournament since 2004 just wasn’t to be.
Let’s not confuse luck with intent, however: Seton Hall very much shot themselves in the foot.
Leading 68-62 with 6:47 to play, Angel Delgado’s fourth foul on Dusty Hannahs — a 90-percent free-throw shooter — kicked off the unraveling.
The Hall would turn the ball over four times down the stretch — and 15 times on the day — which inexcusably surpassed the three points they scored over the same span.
“I think the free-throw line really hurt us a little bit,” said Willard of his team’s missed chances.
“We had our opportunities. We missed a couple [free throws]. We missed an offensive rebound. We missed a tip-in. We missed a little bank shot. We had our opportunities.”
While that laundry list of errors is undoubtedly the root of the Hall’s downfall, it was a two-hand touch tackle plus an incidental trip from Desi Rodriguez on Arkansas’ Jaylen Barford with 18 seconds left which was flipped to a flagrant one after monitor review that left the nation talking.
“I was surprised he pushed me like that,” recalled Barford. “But I don’t know if he was trying to make a play on the ball or what, but it came in our favor.
“I thought it was no play on the ball. As simple as that,” claimed a bold Mike Anderson.
“No play on the ball, he pushed the guy down. You saw it, I saw it.”
With the whole nation — particularly Pirate fans — up in arms, Kevin Willard’s fielding of a barrage of questions regarding the call couldn’t have been classier.
“I just watched it. You know, I thought the three guys tonight did a really good job. It was a physical, athletic game. I think it’s one of those things you’ve got to, if you’ve been around the game long enough you’ve got to know time, score, you’ve got to know what’s going on,” said Willard, directing that last part at the officials and not Rodriguez.
“It’s an NCAA Tournament game. I think you really gotta understand what’s going on. But they reffed a good game all night. So I can’t really complain about whether I agree or not. I’m always going to disagree with it. That’s what coaches do.”
While the rough call is what will be remembered, it’s really the collapse which set up the officials’ decision that is at fault
It leaves a nasty taste, something similar but entirely different than what transpired a year ago in Denver.
“Knowing that we didn’t get that call, it’s sad,” said Desi Rodriguez, who was front and center.
“For our season to end that way — I wouldn’t blame it on just that last call, I’d blame it on the way we handled the ball down the stretch. We didn’t take care of the ball, we didn’t get stops. We should have never got to the point of the travel or the call.”
Featured photo is courtesy of Joey Khan/The Setonian