No. 22 Seton Hall overcomes slow start, uses 20-3 run to bury NJIT 82-53

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NEWARK — On a day in which No. 22 Seton Hall looked sluggish against an inferior opponent with their best player glued to the bench, it was a series of young Pirates who helped picked up the slack.

Following some matador defense and a few head-scratching missed shots, Angel Delgado (5p, 4a, 2r) was pulled from the game at the 18:14 mark of the second half — he wouldn’t see the court again.

Officially, he picked up a minor tweak to his calf, but that doesn’t explain the stare-down from Kevin Willard nor his solitary walk off the court following the Seton Hall alma mater. 

“Nothing. On one of the last drives, he tripped over Abdul’s [Lewis] leg and kind of, nothing major but a little calf, minor thing,” said Willard of what happened to his center.

“I wasn’t going to put him back in. He has a logged a lot of minutes already, early in the season. The big fella has been a workhorse, I wasn’t going to mess around with that. Technically gave him a night off, which he deserves.”

Believe Willard’s explanation or not, Delgado’s second half absence proved to be a non-factor as freshman big Sandro Mamukelashvili (11p, 9r) nearly picked up a double-double in a game in which Delgado failed to and Ish Sanogo (0p, 6r) and Mike Nzei (4p, 3r) were fairly quiet.

“That was the frustrating thing with Sandro. We had a great talk last night, we watched some film. It was so minor some of the stuff he was getting frustrated on,” said Willard of his freshman big’s start to his career.

“I showed him he was doing everything right, he was just a second late or a step slow, fixing those things will put him in position to get a rebound, to get something going good his way, I thought he gave us great energy.”

With Seton Hall leading 43-35 at the under-16, Delgado on the bench, and leading scorer Desi Rodriguez (19p, 7r) about to pick up his fourth foul, the team went on a crippling 20-3 run which included 16 points from guards to break open the flood gates and crush NJIT’s will.

The slow start, big game-changing run pattern is eerily similar to the three games prior to tonight, but Willard doesn’t sound worried.

“No, especially when you play local teams, you’re going to get their best shot, especially early,” he replied when asked if he was worried.

“I think our depth is kind of helping wear teams down. You’re going to get everyone’s best shot in the first 10-13 minutes. We’ve had some good runs early, it’s just sustaining that energy early on. For the most part, I felt comfortable where we were.”

There’s truth to that, as NJIT did well to clog the paint in the first half before a self-inflicted “brain fart” — NJIT head coach Brian Kennedy’s words — gifted six easy points to the hosts just before the half.

“I thought we came out with good purpose in the second half,” added Kennedy. “And then their size and their physicality kind of wore us down a little bit.”

Along with Mamukelashvili, it was reserve guard Eron Gordon (7p, 3a) who helped pick up the slack today with Jordan Walker sidelined due to a torn ligament in his thumb, an injury first thought to be a sprain. 

Gordon converted an and-one during the second half run which had the entire bench halfway on the court and failed to turn the ball over, helping keep the Hall’s total count to an effective 12.

“I thought E-G did a really good job,” said Willard of Gordon. “I thought he defended really well, he was a little more comfortable in that position considering that Jordan [Walker] is going to be out three weeks, maybe a little bit more than that.”

Willard added that while Walker could technically play, he has adopted the approach of “playing it safe”, inferring that he would likely need surgery at the end of the year if it didn’t heal properly now; Walker wore a red cast on his right hand while on the bench.

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Looking ahead, Seton Hall (4-0) will receive a few days of rest before they take on Rhode Island (1-1), a Hurley-led team which recently lost fifth-year senior E.C. Matthews to a wrist injury in a loss to Nevada; Rhodie was ranked just outside the top-25 to start the season. 

If they win on Thanksgiving, Vanderbilt or Virginia await the Pirates in the early game on Friday night in Brooklyn. Willard said the team will be having a Thanksgiving dinner at his house next Sunday before muttering “I’ll be doing the cooking, we’ll see how that goes.”