NEWARK — Tears flowed from multiple players and Kevin Willard in an emotionally-charged 77-70 win over Butler that turned into a fitting send-off for Seton Hall’s four seniors.
While there was plenty at stake with the Hall locked into a first day meeting with DePaul in the Big East Tournament as punishment for a loss, tonight was ultimately all about the extracurriculars.
From Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado streaming tears during a moving pre-game ceremony, to a senior embrace at the scorer’s table with seconds remaining that also included Khadeen Carrington, the night as a whole was a class act and should be remembered by fans for years to come.
And it had little to do with the outcome.
“I hate to say this. I was actually more emotional –it was the hardest pre-game talk I’ve ever had,” said Kevin Willard of the occasion.
“I broke down– I had to go back in my locker room. I looked in the mirror and said ‘You’ve got to get your blank together.’ And then they went out (on the court) and I thought I got my stuff together.
“And I was at half court and I looked up and starting watching the (ceremony) video and then the next thing I know Sha (associate head coach Shaheen Holloway) looks at me and was like ‘What are you crying for?’ I said ‘I know you’re happy, but I’m not very happy right now.’”
While I’m sure the players were moved by their coach’s emotions, they had a meal of it post-game, almost giddy that that they caught him at a vulnerable time.
“Coach almost cried in the locker room,” said Carrington, smiling. “I seen him, but he didn’t want to look at me. It was real emotional, I feel like we’ve been here forever.”
“It was funny to me. I knew he was going to get emotional, he tried holding it back,” joked Ismael Sanogo, who agonizingly sat out with a sprained ankle. “He’s a great man. He’s done a lot for us and you can’t ask for a better coach than him.”
Willard’s unprecedented outpouring of emotion contained six years worth of memories with a group of kids turned young men that he proudly refers to as his own.
“They are like my oldest sons. I’ve been with them for six years, technically, you’ve got to recruit them. I spend more time with them for eight months than I do my own family.
“As you sit there and you have such a feeling of pride because you watch them grow and you feel proud for what they’ve accomplished, proud of the men they’ve become, the decisions they’re making.
“They are graduating and two of them are going to be the first to graduate out of their families. There’s just so many emotions you go through when you’ve been with the players this long.”
The outreach from Willard to his guys is reciprocal, leaving several seniors who have been through it alongside him to now refer to their coach as someone much more than that.
“Coach is like a father figure to me. I didn’t really grow up with a father,” said Carrington. “We’ve been together for like six years now. We spoke before I even came here. It’s just great having him in my life.”
“He’s definitely a father figure in our lives,” added Sanogo. “He’s always taking care of us, we piss him off a lot at times, but he’s never turned his back on us. He’s always had our back, he’s always the first one fighting for us.”
That once-in-a-generation bond that has formed between Willard and his four-man senior class has yielded thousands of points and rebounds, but no amount of any particular stat could make up for what transpired tonight.
“I will miss them dearly. But I think that’s the great thing they’ve done here, they’ll never be gone,” said an emotional Willard.
“That’s the big thing. Every recruit we have that comes and watches those guys, they walk away thinking ‘I can’t believe how hard those guys work. I can’t believe how much fun those guys have.’
“They’ve laid a great foundation for the guys sitting out and the young guys. So even though their bodies won’t be here, they’ve passed along what it takes to win at this level.”
But while this emotional chapter can only be re-read and not re-written, there is plenty of writing still left to be had at the Big East Tournament and beyond.
“Once you get past Senior Night– I’ve been dreading this for the last week, week and a half,” said Willard of the culmination of emotions going into tonight.
“Now I’m just going to enjoy being around them. Enjoy the memories.”