WICHITA — Seton Hall and its senior class ended their four-year journey in a 83-79 loss to Kansas the only way they knew how: fighting as a family until the bitter end.
The brutal reality of college hoops is that out of every team that makes the NCAA tournament, everyone goes home a loser except for one.
The odds are always stacked against you in favor of a tear-filled exit without a title to show for it.
It’s cruel really, but that’s what makes the ultimate prize that much sweeter.
That said, the way in which Seton Hall’s senior-heavy team walked off the court for the final time was fitting in more than one way.
The brutal stretch of play early in both halves against Kansas embodied what the seniors have had to do since they stepped foot in South Orange: band together as a group and try to dig themselves out of a hole.
“It’s why I love those guys. They’re such special young men who have battled, who have sacrificed, who have grown,” said Kevin Willard, agreeing that tonight was a microcosm of the four-year journey.
“Those four young men who just walked off this stage are terrific, unbelievable young men who have represented us, myself with the highest character. And this game was exactly how their career was: Not pretty at all times, but absolutely unbelievable grit, unbelievable effort.
“And they never, ever walked off the floor without giving it their all, and I think that’s something that not a whole lot of kids can say for their career.”
There may have been better ways to exit the tournament, but perhaps none more appropriate and none more valiant, as Seton Hall fought tooth-and-nail against a one-seed and 14,000-plus engaged Kansas supporters.
Down 15-6 with 11 to play in the first half, Seton Hall looked shell-shocked and prepared for an early round knockout blow.
We should have known better.
Then in similar fashion, they fell behind 52-39 with 12 to play in the second half after an early Kansas onslaught.
Naturally, their fiercest rally would answer their steepest deficit.
“We never really gave up,” said Khadeen Carrington, who went off for 26 of his 28 points in the second half. “I think everybody from myself down to the last person off the bench came in and gave it what they had.”
“We left everything on the floor. These four years probably is the best four years of my life right now, and I’m really proud of this,” said a teary-eyed Angel Delgado, after playing by far the best game of his career en route to 24 points, 23 rebounds and five assists.
“This is the best decision I ever made in my life to come to Seton Hall and be part of this and these great coaches. These four years that we’ve been here, we won, we lost, hard times, good times, but everybody faces the bad times, too, and we’re facing it right now. But everything good. And I love my guys, I love my coaches.”
“We left the the legacy of us being a family,” added Ish Sanogo, who was handicapped with fouls all night and could only muster five hard-fought boards. “We won together, we lost together. We did everything together. … We left everything out on the floor at every single game.”
“We’re in a tough situation right now because of the loss, but playing with these guys for four years probably was the best four years of my life,” said Desi Rodriguez, echoing Delgado’s sentiment.
“These guys became my family and my brothers for life, and playing for Coach Willard, you know, I think both teams gave it our all today.”
Even after Seton Hall battled back from their 13-point deficit, it looked like Kansas iced the game after another pesty Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk made shot that gave the Jayhawks a 71-63 lead with 1:20 to play.
Yet again, we were fooled. Seton Hall came close to getting the ball down a possession within the closing 30 seconds, but a pair of pressure plays in Kansas’ backcourt yielded a foul and a monitor review that went against them.
Seton Hall and its seniors just weren’t ready to roll over. They wanted to battle, one last time.
And that they did.
“It really sucks to leave like this right now because we got so much expectation. We want to win everything and we want to be the best team in the tournament,” said Delgado.
“But it’s one winner and one loser and we’re the losing team right now. So I’m just proud of my team, just proud of my coach. He’s not only my coach. He’s like my dad. So it’s kind of hard right now, but I just love my guys.”
“It’s not the happiest moment,” admitted Sanogo. “I felt like my guys from the starting five to everybody on the bench gave their all. Couldn’t ask for more than that.”
Coming full circle, it was most likely in the cards that these seniors would walk off the court one final time as losers on the scoreboard.
But their body of work says they were winners, on and off the court.
And they left how they came: battling and striving for something greater.
There are many different ways this team could have played their final seconds, but Khadeen & Co. can rightfully hold their heads high.
Outside of winning a national title, would he have preferred to end it another way?
“No. I think we went out fighting. We went down swinging. We didn’t give up at the end. It was easy, we could have just gave up and stop trying to attack, stop trying to go.
“But everybody– we had faith that we would win the game until the buzzer sounded. You can’t really ask for anything more than that.”