NEWARK, N.J. — Just when you thought Seton Hall’s season was taking a turn for the worst, a shorthanded Pirates team dug deep for a remarkable 52-48 defensive victory over No. 7 Maryland.
15 blocks, 10 steals, 17 forced turnovers. At many points in the second half, Seton Hall’s block count was only within a few possessions of the Terps’ point total.
Don’t get me wrong, Maryland made their fair share of mistakes including several missed free throws down the stretch and a turnover out of a baseline out of bounds play, but Seton Hall’s defense was the team’s calling card in a game played without Myles Powell and Sandro Mamukelashvili.
And like most significant wins and losses for this team, it seems like the tone is set not during the 40 minutes on the court, but the hours spent in the bowels of Walsh Gym.
“I thought we could win this from Monday,” said center Romaro Gill, who laid down the law early with not one, but several game-defining blocks; Gill matched a Prudential Center single-game record with six swats.
“From the way we approached practice and went hard two and a half hours, three days in a row. We didn’t complain, we just went through practice and do what we have to do and correct each other and help each other see the mistakes that we’re making and fix it. I feel like we won this game from practice to be honest.
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday we practiced very hard. Coach told us before that he knew we were going to do good today, he didn’t know if we were going to win or lose but he just had a feeling that we were going to do good today. We knew we had to do it, knowing we had two of our best players out, we had to go out there and do what we had to do to pull off this win tonight and we really needed it.”
Gill’s early block fest, which was complimented by six from Ike Obiagu off the bench, sparked belief in a team low on confidence after a series of near misses in non-conference play topped off by a heavy loss at Rutgers.
“The big fellas, they down there,” smirked Quincy McKnight.
“If you’re going to go down there, you better know what you’re going into. We’re willing to let guys go right by us to go meet the big fellas down there. They did a tremendous job today. The last couple games I think a lot of people have been looking at them and they haven’t been doing what we want them to be doing and they dug down in themselves and said ‘Hey, it’s time to play basketball.’ We were down and they stepped up.”
While the two seven-footers were anchors down low, it was lead guard and senior McKnight that stepped up to the plate and smashed it out of the park as the game’s best player.
“It means a lot,” said McKnight when asked if this was a soul-searching win for the team.
“For one, it’s a confidence booster for everyone on the team. It shows everybody– there’s been a doubt with us since we lost to Iowa State, losing Sandro and now Myles. They put a little beating to us at Rutgers, there was a little doubt [in us].
“We just proved to everybody– just chill — we did a lot of soul-searching the last few days. This is a good program win right here. … It was tough, we dug down and we got a good program win.”
Like his seven-foot teammate who combined for a critical early-game block-and-three sequence, McKnight concurred that this game was won earlier in the week.
“Nah, no speeches or talks. No player-only meetings. Nothing like that,” said McKnight of any crisis talks after Rutgers.
“It was straight, we took off Sunday and came back Monday. We literally watched the first half [of Rutgers] for an hour and a half. Rewinding, watching plays, and it was a gut-check. Simple as that. Everyone came back to practice on Monday and we practiced hard. We practiced hard the last three days. Even yesterday we went for a two-and-a-half hour practice yesterday, we never do that before games. We got after it.”
Kevin Willard parroted what his two star players said just minutes before him.
“I knew on Monday after practice that this team is still going to be as good as I thought they were going to be. We watched film for two-and-a-half hours and we practiced for an hour and a half, and after the practice, I was looking to see how they were going to bounce back.
“They were honest in the film, we all talked about things that were going on in the film, and then we had three days of our best practice we’ve had all year. They proved to me that they weren’t going to hang their heads, they weren’t going to worry about anything, and they showed up and they played great defensively.”
While Gill, Obiagu & Co. were great defensively, McKnight poured in a season-high 17 points to go along with eight boards, six assists, two steals, and one block to just two turnovers in a masterclass performance with his backcourt brother — his words — quarantined in a dark room in South Orange due to concussion protocol.
Sensing the urgency, the senior guard rose to the occasion and then some.
“It’s hard to see him [Powell] go down, he’s my brother, I’m with him all the time so I’ve been feeling a little different, I haven’t been with him the last couple of days but his spirits are high and he’s ready to get back on the court.”
According to Kevin Willard, Powell will sit out Sunday against Prairie View A&M and will “probably” miss the DePaul game, “he’s not going to be back anytime soon.”
“He came to me before the game told me ‘Yo bro, just play your game. Just do what you do’ and that’s what we did today,” added McKnight.
Despite Willard’s post-Rutgers downplaying of how important beating Maryland was for both the short- and long-term, Seton Hall played like they were undermanned and with their backs against the wall.
They came out scrappy against a Maryland team on nine days of rest and dictated play defensively and offensively, milking the clock with designed poised play from Anthony Nelson.
But while sects of the Seton Hall fan base were edging toward the proverbial ledge and even the team itself was sensing a collective mental rout coming, this game was truly a do-anything circling of the wagons.
Survive or die trying.
“The Rutgers game, it was a bad one for us. I felt everything was down for us that day,” said Gill.
“We knew we had to put our big boy shoes on tonight and show the world just because we lost to Rutgers that doesn’t mean that’s the end of us. We had to come out and show them what we can do.
“We did that tonight.”