NEWARK — There were plenty of rivalry-flavored sound bites after Seton Hall’s drama-filled 72-66 win over Rutgers in the latest edition of the Garden State Hardwood Classic.
Ah, the refreshing sights and sounds of a rivalry game. I’ve got you covered with everything rivalry-related in the aftermath of today’s clash that ultimately lived up to the hype.
The most classy statement from any entity today came from Kevin Willard when asked about what it means for the trophy to be back in South Orange after a one-year hiatus.
“I think it’s important. I love what Steve’s (Pikiell) doing. As a taxpayer and someone that funds his program (grins), I love the fact that Steve is at Rutgers, because I know he’s going to get it done. He’s a first-class person, runs a first-class program, he can flat-out coach. So as someone that — I know this sounds weird — roots for Rutgers to be good, I think we have the right guy there,” said Willard.
“And what I told the guys was, we’ve been the best — besides Villanova, we’ve been the best college basketball program in the Northeast for the last five years, bar none. It hasn’t even been that close. And what we’ve done in this area to be a consistent winner, we take a lot of pride in that in this program.
“What I told the guys was, I said it was going to be a one or two-possession game, but we deserve the right for the fact of how hard we’ve worked in this program to get it to where it is, that you’ve got to win this game. And so from that vantage point, I think these guys understood, and they take a lot of pride in where we’ve gotten this program.”
While it’s probably obviously, I’ll hammer home the point that Willard was 100-percent sincere and wasn’t just blowing smoke up the rivalry’s behind for the sake of it. On a comedic note, it’s not the first time Willard has mentioned how his tax dollars fund Rutgers’ program.
As for Steve Pikiell, he was more succinct but not visibly bitter or anything post-game. He paid homage to both teams and commended the ability of his guys to keep fighting until the end.
“Threes years I’ve been a part of it. It’s a passionate game. It always comes down to the last couple possessions,” said Pikiell. “A lot of technicals– I tried to get explanations, I didn’t understand some of them. Our guys played hard, their guys played hard.
While Rutgers thoroughly enjoyed their deserved 365 days on the Jersey hoops throne, it was obvious that Seton Hall’s players had something to prove to themselves, their fans, and their former teammates after last season’s loss at the RAC.
The best quote came from Sandro Mamukelashvili (15pts, 3-4 3PT, 9 rebs), who hit a series of clutch outside shots including a corner three after Rutgers cut it to 54-49 with seven to play.
“It’s amazing getting the trophy back, we always want to win against Rutgers because it’s a rivalry game and they want to prove to us who is the best team in New Jersey so we came out motivated to get the trophy back and it played out great.”
Even though the game featured five technical fouls, Mamukelashvili, who was overlooked in the Rutgers’ scouting report, was expecting more.
“It was intense, but to tell you the truth I was expecting a little more intensity. I was expecting a more physical game and it was physical, but I expected more hacks and more pushes. My teammates and I handed ourselves well, we played mature. There was some court talk going on but we were mature.”
Wait for it…
“For me, being with the seniors for a year and seeing how bad it felt when we lost (last year), I wanted to go get it and I feel like they’re a part of us. I talked to Angel (Delgado) before the game and he just said ‘Bring that shit back’ and we went and brought that shit back.”
And it was all said with a light-hearted smile.
This edition’s Joe Calabrese MVP award winner Myles Powell (28 pts, 6-13 3PT) also had a chip on his shoulder despite a respectable 18 points on 11 shots at Rutgers a year ago in a game (71-65) that almost finished with an identical score.
“It left a bad taste in my mouth for a whole year now. We only get to play that game once. Jersey basketball is only so big so all the top players know each other. So having to travel around the state and knowing that Rutgers beat us and people walking around saying that Rutgers is better than Seton Hall, you take it personal. I finally got to get them back, so it feels good. And to send our senior Mike (Nzei) out on a win (in the rivalry), it feels good.
“I’ve been here three years, it’s my third year playing this game. The fans have never let us down. It’s always a close one, it’s always a nail-biter. Props to Rutgers, they’re a good team, but we came out on top today.”
Regarding the technical fouls? Myles could see it coming.
“It’s the competitiveness. You’ve seen it all on social media. Them posting stuff about us, us posting stuff about them. It’s all love at the end of the day, we’re just playing basketball and doing the thing that we love. It’s competitive, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Now we get to wear the crown until next year.”
The Christmas of Jersey hoops can’t come soon enough.
But for now, Seton Hall fans are savoring it and I’m sure they are keen on milking the bragging rights until next December.
“It feels good, it’s where it’s supposed to be now,” said Powell.
“Seton Hall runs the state.”