College Park, Md. — This was supposed to be a two-year rebuild for Seton Hall after losing last year’s senior class. Well, someone needs to commend the construction company because this team is coming together a lot quicker than we thought.
The expected move-in date after traveling down an I-95 congested with holiday traffic and knocking off a Maryland (9-3) team that has been flirting with the top-25?
Possibly some time in March.
Seton Hall (9-3) has made gigantic strides since their 80-57 thrashing at Nebraska a little over a month ago, growing up seemingly by the game.
The foundation was laid at the Wooden Legacy with what we thought could be a high-water mark win over Miami.
But now after wins over Kentucky and Maryland, this team has come together nicely and there’s no reason at this rate they won’t be firmly in the discussion come Selection Sunday.
“I think it’s shown me how far we’ve come from really late November-early December to now,” said Kevin Willard after his team’s gutsy win over the Terrapins.
“I think we’ve really progressed nicely. I think we still have some– we’ve really got to make some bigger jumps as we move into league play, but I think we’ve really progressed nicely.”
If you couldn’t infer this by Willard’s pre-Maryland quotes, now his expectations going into the non-league slate are explicit.
“I was hoping, to be honest with you, to be 8-4. I thought that 8-4 would be great for this group and put us in good position. Being 9-3 is tremendous.”
If you had Seton Hall at 9-3 with wins over Kentucky and Maryland going into Big East play you rightfully should have been labelled as wildly optimistic, to put it mildly.
But that’s why they play the games.
A 16-5 cushion to start after an early-game defensive masterclass from Willard to slot 7-foot-2 Romaro Gill (6p, 8r, 3b) into the starting center spot got Seton Hall on their way.
“Ro, we believe in him,” said Myles Powell, who led all scorers with 27 on just 14 shots.
“We told him it was going to be a big game for him, just to play his game, be ready to block some shots, rebound, that’s all we need you to do and you’re going to do great.”
The early tactical decision paid huge dividends at the time and down the stretch.
Gill, who played the most meaningful basketball game of his life, would pull down a defensive board with the Hall leading 74-71 and 16 seconds to play, setting up a pair of Powell free throws to seal the deal.
Talk about a symbolic rebound.
“Ro’ brings size to the floor, Coach wanted that and Ro’ did phenomenal on him (Bruno Fernando),” said Myles Cale, who poured in a key 23 points on ten shots.
“He blocked a couple shots, he even dunked on him, I was really happy for him.”
Shutting down Fernando, who scored 13 of his 19 in the first half, when it counted in the second half, was another key in-game adjustment.
Powell wasn’t shy about heaping praise on his head coach.
“I feel as though we have one of the best coaches in the country and when we follow his game plan we can play with anybody and we followed the game plan.
“They have a great big man (Fernando), he got after it in the beginning but we came back at halftime, watched some film, and we came out and slowed him down a little bit and we did what we had to do.”
Trailing 34-30 at the break with Maryland riding a wave of momentum, Seton Hall started another half on the front foot, reeling off a 9-3 run around an Anthony Cowan (15p, 2a) three-pointer.
Cowan was held to just two points over the first 20 minutes as a committee of Pirate guards split duties, but it was Quincy McKnight (9p, 4r, 4a) who logged the heavy minutes down the stretch with Cowan trying harder than ever to break through.
But McKnight lives for these types of games. He lives for guarding the other team’s best player. You can see it in his body language, slapping the court, getting in their face on defense.
His effort on the defensive end had the Maryland media in awe, as I heard them asking the Terrapin players and Mark Turgeon alike about the job McKnight did.
Turgeon was left labeling McKnight a big-time defender twice during his press conference.
“Quincy is one of the best defenders in the country,” concurred Powell.
“Whoever their best player is, right off the bat he says ‘Coach, I’ve got him.’ … He’s been doing it all week in practice and then it translated over to the game. He guards me in practice, same with Shavar (Reynolds), so I know how much defense he plays and we need him, he’s our best defender.”
“Defensively, we start with Q, and I think the job he did on (Anthony) Cowan, the job he’s done all year long on everyone he’s played has been tremendous,” added Willard.
While McKnight was plugging leaks in the Pirates’ ship, it was ultimately Brothers Myles — again — who steered the ship in the right direction, for good.
In what was a rollercoaster second half that included momentum swing after momentum swing, the biggest turn of events came with 5:30 to play after a Maryland put-back dunk saw them go up 61-57, sending the Xfinity Center crowd into a frenzy.
It was the boiling point of the whole game, and Seton Hall’s house passed the inspection with flying colors.
With 12,555 red-clad fans on their feet, Kevin Willard called a timeout and a massive 13-3 Myles-inspired run would ensue.
First, an in-bounds play was drawn up for Powell, who converted an and-one to silence the crowd.
Then, Cale pulled down a manly rebound and sank both freebies in a one-and-one situation.
The two would trade scores until Cale swiped the ball in the lane and converted on the fast-break, putting his team up 68-64 with 2:44 to play, and the Maryland crowd into a state of unease and disbelief.
Seton Hall wouldn’t look back.
“That’s what coach needs. The energy, the guy to dive on the floor,” said Cale, whose 23 were a new career high after surpassing his 17 against Kentucky.
“I went out there and did that today. Coach trusted me and called my plays and I knocked them down.”
Zooming out, this is Seton Hall’s best non-conference road win since N.C. State in 2006, and sets them up nicely in March if they meet ever-growing expectations in Big East play.
March was on the team’s mind coming to College Park.
“Coach was on us in practice yesterday, in walkthrough today,” said Cale. “He just said how important this win would be for the NCAA tournament and we took that in and focused in and got the dub today.”
“We feel good. We’re right back in the situation that I was in with the seniors last year. Coach just told us we control our own destiny,” said Powell.
“It means a lot to the program. We’ve been preparing for them all week, we never doubted ourselves. Like I’ve been telling you guys, Coach has faith in us, we have faith in ourselves and we came out here and followed Coach’s game plan and got the job done.
“We have a lot of heart. That’s what our program has been about, that’s all it’s been since I’ve been here, and we’re going to keep the tradition going.
“We’ve got a lot of heart.”