Seton Hall rids “monkey on our backs” with drought-snapping NCAA tournament win

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WICHITA — The legacy of Seton Hall’s seniors we’ve talked about ad nauseam? It just received a significant boost.

Legacy, legacy, legacy.

Whatever your thoughts were coming into this one, the needle should be moved in a big way after this afternoon’s 94-83 win over North Carolina State. 

They’ve won over the hearts of fans off the court and have added some sweet post-season icing to the regular season accomplishment cake this Seton Hall senior class has put together over the past four seasons. 

“I was watching TV with my wife last night, and I was thinking about I’m Mr. Negative and she’s Ms. Positive and I was thinking what am I going to say about– if we did lose, about their legacy,” said a choked up Kevin Willard when asked about how this win completes the overall resume of the seniors.

“These four kids and Isaiah (Whitehead), you know, have worked really hard. I think the biggest thing that if we had lost I was going to be disappointed about is I always preach to these guys: No matter what in life, if you work hard, you’ll be rewarded.”

That reward came today.

“I think the biggest thing is these guys have worked really hard. They’re not a lazy group. … And it’s just for them to get rewarded for all their hard work, I think that was the biggest thing and the most– that’s what I’m feeling right now is that it kind of validates everything that we’ve done and the fact that they’ve worked so hard for four years.”

Interestingly enough, it was a sophomore in Myles Powell (19 pts, 9 rebs) that set the tone early when he flew into the scorer’s table — his nine rebounds tell the tale of how hard he played.

We’ve heard from Willard and the seniors about what this means for them. But everything that drives them also influences Powell, and the senior-fest is far from a distraction, the opposite actually.

They gave the school so much and if it wasn’t for them I probably wouldn’t be here,” said a sincere Powell, who always looks you in the eyes. “And to help, to contribute and get them something to add to their legacy and history, it means a lot to me.”

Aside from the time he spent diving on the court, there was just a bounce in his step that was noticeable from the first few minutes. 

“I’m here to do whatever it takes for us to keep moving on, to survive and advance,” he added.

“If they need me to dive on the floor, get in jump balls, get in fights (smiles), anything they need me to do I’m willing to do. Those my big brothers, they know that I got them, I know that they got me, and that’s how we’ve been rocking since I got here.”

While Powell got the ball rolling, it was of course the four seniors who perpetuated what he started. 

Coming off the bench after Willard decided to stick with the same starting lineup he’s used the past two games, Ish Sanogo (10 pts, 10 rebs) and Desi Rodriguez (20 pts) gave the team an extra boost they haven’t quite had since Rodriguez injured himself at Providence.

And Angel Delgado (13 pts, 9 rebs, 4 asts) bullied North Carolina State center Omer Yurtseven out of the game, literally, after the Turkish import was a big pre-game focal point.

I told him he can’t guard me and stuff like that,” verified Delgado — I heard him say this on the court during the game. “He’s a young kid so once you get in his head it’s really hard, because I’ve been through stuff like that as a young guy so I kind of know what the feeling is.”

Delgado battled until he fouled out with a couple minutes to go after he nearly dislocated his shoulder early in the game.

“I thought I lost my shoulder that one time. He just pulled my shoulder and I felt like it came out a little bit,” said the Dominican native.

“He (the trainer) was telling me to come to the locker room. I said ‘I’m not moving here, I’ma stay here, I’m not leaving my guys. It is what it is, I can play with one arm if you want.’”

Gutsy.

But while those three seniors played their roles, ever-steady lead guard Khadeen Carrington (26 pts, 3 asts) easily gets the game ball by way of an Andre Barrett-like performance.

As the game reached it’s last true tipping point at 67-63 with 8:56 to play, it was Carrington who shouldered the load, scoring all 13 of his second half points over the final 8:30, including nine free throws; Seton Hall’s 31 makes from the line was a season high.

Carrington’s late-game play was somewhat of a redemption after he coughed the rock up twice in the closing minute against Arkansas last season.

“My body couldn’t, I was too tired [laughs],” he said when I asked him if his mind wanted the dunk that he missed badly during that stretch.

“I’ve got to give God the thanks for that. I think during the season I hit a little wall and I wasn’t believing in myself and I wasn’t having confidence. And then I started praying and getting in the gym and I think that’s what really did it, just being confident in myself. My family stuck with me, my coaches stuck with me, my teammates stuck with me.”

The guy who has backed him more than anyone, his father figure, couldn’t have been more proud.

“He’s gotten a lot of unfair criticism throughout the year about not being a point guard, not being this. And all I’ve told him is that he’s been an unbelievable leader,” said Willard of his lead guard, something he’s repeated multiple times this season.

“He’s been an unbelievable point guard. He has sacrificed scoring at times. He’s sacrificed the fact that he’s gotta guard the best offender. And I’ve seen over the last probably month a young man growing into the position and a young man that’s going to have a very bright future at that position.”

Looking toward the future, Seton Hall has an even bigger chance to alter their legacy against one-seeded Kansas on Saturday in front of what will be 99.9-percent (literally) Jayhawk fans.

“Coming here and getting our first win, knowing it’s 14 years this team took to win a game in the tournament, it’s just great,” said Delgado.

“It does a lot, but if we win Saturday, it will do way better. Right now it’s great we won a game but we cannot get happy with one game, we gotta get happy when we win everything.”

Even the hardcore skeptics will be swayed if the Hall can shock the world.

I feel like we’ve done everything. We won 20 games our last 3 seasons,” said Carrington.

“We won a Big East (title), the only thing that was missing, we had a monkey on our backs with the NCAA tournament.

“I feel like once you get out the first round, anything can happen.”