Newark, N.J. — Seton Hall was the second-best team for the majority of their 76-74 rallying win over St. John’s in their Big East opener, but they took punches and dug deep when it counted. This is not an anomaly, but a growing trend for a young team experiencing a growth spurt.
Over their first seven games, we witnessed the inability to close the gap in the fourth quarter against Nebraska and Saint Louis, plus the relinquishing of a narrow three-point lead to Louisville over the closing five minutes.
Granted the Wooden Legacy win over Miami (Fla.) came before Louisville, the ability to hang onto that game can be added to the expanding sample size of just how fiesty this Seton Hall team gets when the going gets tough.
The Hurricanes were a warm-up, Kentucky was a coming out party, and the consecutive wins over Maryland and now St. John’s are proof that this team’s resiliency is not a fluke.
The Red Storm came out with a bang in the form of three consecutive threes followed up with a thunderous flush from LJ Figueroa.
13-2 in the blink of an eye.
Fast forwarding past a 14-point St. John’s lead late in the first half, Seton Hall was again up against the ropes after Shamorie Ponds got off the schneid by way of a confident three in Myles Powell’s face, followed up with a blow-by in the lane a possession later.
With 9:30 to play, a 64-52 lead was left in Ponds’ wake after Seton Hall missed a layup that could have cut what seemed like an ever-present seven-point St. John’s lead to five.
Naively, I thought that would turn out to be the foundation of the Hall’s demise on the night.
But instead, Seton Hall tapped into a new level of introspection and conjured yet another impressive and unique way to win in a big-game scenario.
These past few weeks have been a far cry from Nebraska, Saint Louis, and Louisville.
“I think they’ve really grown, and the biggest thing is they’re understanding their roles,” said Kevin Willard of the team’s newfound clutch streak.
“I think everybody has much more confidence in what they’re doing, so I think when you have more confidence in your roles, end-of-game situations get a lot easier because now everyone’s not guessing, ‘Should I take a shot? Should I pass it?’ They all know what they’re doing out there, and I think that makes a big difference.”
For the players, Willard is the primary guiding light when it comes to adversity. I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard him say “We’ll bounce back” over past seasons after losses.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Every game has been an opportunity for us. We as a team, we learn from our mistakes,” explained an always articulate Mike Nzei after posting his first double-double since February of 2017, also against St. John’s.
“We started off bad, and we knew it’s not going to work. Coach helped us figure it out, and I believe every game we go in, we’re learning new stuff about ourselves as a team. As a team, we’re discovering new things and I believe we all have faith in each other and that’s been helping us and making the bond stay tight.”
What did they learn against St. John’s?
“Today is never give up. Continue the fight. Because they came out, St. John’s came out tough. I give my teammates credit for holding their head high, listening to Coach. Coach said they’re going to make their run, just try to stay in the game, you’re going to make your run too.
“At the end of the game, Myles (Powell) helped us out with all those drives and we picked it up. Biggest lesson, never give up. Everything is possible. We believed in ourselves and we got it done.”
If every game is a learning experience, one must wonder what the next lesson for this team is. Perhaps a pair of road wins over Xavier and DePaul can thrust Seton Hall into a national ranking ahead of their next home game against Butler.
It’s hard not to be optimistic with these sorts of passed tests in the schedule’s rear view.
“We’re battle tested. Straight like that. That’s been our motto all year. We’re battle tested,” said Quincy McKnight after holding Shamorie Ponds to eight points, seven assists, and five turnovers.
McKnight scored 14 himself and dished four assists to zero turnovers. It’s just the latest feather in his cap of ‘mano a mano’ battles with the other team’s best guard where he’s come out on top.
“We took a couple bumps on the head early in the year, but we bounced back. That’s the big thing. You’ve got to know how to bounce back. We take that into not just the season — our losses and wins — we take that (mentality) into games too. First four minutes of the game, we’re getting punched, we’re getting jabbed, we’ve got to know how to bounce back over the next four minutes.”
McKnight, who has emerged as a co-leader alongside Myles Powell and Mike Nzei after taking flak from some fans earlier in the season, continued on in a candid explanation of what makes this team tick late-on.
“We’ve proved not just to our coaching staff, the fans, but to ourselves that we’re battle tested. When we go down, we can make a run real quick. Myles scores the ball in spurts. Whenever he gets the ball in his hands, he’s able to score.
“Being down isn’t anything on us. When we’re down, we just keep fighting back. Get a couple stops here, there and it’s show your heart. That’s all we said, beginning of the game. ‘Show your heart right now fellas. Let’s play with some swag and let’s show our heart’, that’s it.”
Heart. We’ve heard that before and quite recently.
Myles Cale spoke about the team’s core organ post-Maryland, chalking that roller coaster second half up to wanting it more.
Well, Seton Hall’s will to win was on full display over the closing ten-plus minutes against St. John’s and it was perfectly tied together in the closing seconds by someone who knows a little something about heart.
“This team has a lot of heart,” said Shavar Reynolds Jr. after he and his guys threatened the heart conditions of quite a few fans on Saturday night during a thrilling encounter.
“One thing, we may lack in other areas, (but) it’s our heart that determines how we play and how we go. In the end, the last six minutes, we started to play the way we play with that heart and that toughness and that’s what got us the ‘W’.
“Just heart, that’s all I can say,” he continued when I pressed on about the team’s big-game mentality.
“At the end of the day, all it’s coming down to is ‘How bad do you want it?’ This team, this team wants it.
“Everyday we go hard. It’s about how much you want it. That’s it.”