NEWARK, N.J. — After getting bailed out by Myles Powell countless times before, it was Seton Hall’s supporting cast that won one for their sidelined star in a 52-48 upset of No. 7 Maryland.
Losers in three of their last four games against top-200 opponents. A 20-point loss at rival Rutgers in a game that was never a game.
Even senior guard Quincy McKnight admitted that doubt was creeping into the locker room of a once-hyped Seton Hall team.
Who knew all it would take was losing your preseason All-American in Powell (concussion) on top of emergent forward Sandro Mamukelashvili (fractured wrist) to steady the ship against seventh-ranked Maryland in a game where the Terps were favorite by a touchdown.
The game didn’t have a ton of pure hoops, and its 20-7 scoreline at the final first half media timeout would have left fans wondering if they were at the wrong venue if Seton Hall had a football team.
But winning pretty is an afterthought when you’re shorthanded and up against a top-ten team as your non-conference schedule fades away.
You just want to get the job done.
And by the sound of it, Seton Hall — perhaps shell-shocked by the Rutgers thrashing and losing your best player — dusted off their lunch pails on the practice court this week and made it happen for their injured brethren.
“I sure know I did. I told Sandro before [the game] ‘I miss you out there and I’m going to go out and play for you, play for Myles, play for the program,'” said Romaro Gill when asked if the team had an extra drive to get this done for Powell and Sandro.
“It kind of gets [at] you when two of your best players are out so we had to do it for them. Probably people were going to think Myles and Sandro aren’t there, we’re not going to stand a chance, so we had to go out there tonight and prove it to them that we can still do it.”
That extra mental focus was obvious from the opening tip via Gill’s defensive air traffic control and the team’s willingness to share the ball on offense, something that had gone stagnant recently.
For Quincy McKnight, the victory was extra satisfying given his closeness to Powell.
“The spirits are high,” said McKnight of Powell’s mental state, just a few days removed from a serious concussion at Rutgers.
“It’s tough, with him doing the things that he’s been doing, just missing these two games, whatever it is he’s [ultimately] missing, it’s slowing down his little journey.
“He came back for a reason, he has records to break, he wants to get more wins, points, everything. It’s hard to see him go down, he’s my brother, I’m with him all the time so I’ve been feeling a little different, I haven’t been with him the last couple of days but his spirits are high and he’s ready to get back on the court.”
McKnight was candid about Powell’s status, joking about how he has to wear special sunglasses when outside his darkened room.
“He’s been laying in bed, laying in the dark, he just go some nice little [sun] glasses today. He came in my room, I was the first person to see his nice little glasses that he has to wear now [laughs].
“His hopes are high, his spirits are high, his spirit is with us. He came to me before the game and told me ‘Yo bro, just play your game. Just do what you do’ and that’s what we did today.”
While the star of the game was up-beat when talking about the star of the team, Kevin Willard wasn’t optimistic about Powell’s return.
“He won’t be back Sunday [Prairie View A&M], he’s probably not going to be back for DePaul, we’re going to take our time with this. He kind of got a triple KO in the game: He took the charge, he got a shoulder and then he got a late shoulder again, the combination of the three has made it a pretty serious concussion.
“The good thing is the Big East has done a lot with concussion protocol and our trainer has led the way, so we’ve done genetic testing [Willard is referring to baseline testing] for him, we have every test so far in a baseline, so he’s doing great. He’s in great spirits, I talked to him before the game, we talked afterwards. He’s ecstatic, but he will not be back anytime soon.”
The team did a little more than talk to Powell afterwards.
Assistant coach Grant Billmeier got Powell on the line to FaceTime with the entire team in the locker room.
“We were just on FaceTime with him in the locker room, the whole team,” said McKnight.
“He’s back at home [South Orange]. He’s ecstatic, he said ‘Hurry up get back’ so that he can celebrate with us. We haven’t been able to really see him this week since he’s been in concussion protocol, he’s been in and out [of it], we’ve just tried to go visit him.”
“I wish you guys could have seen it,” continued McKnight, sincerely. “Everybody in the locker room was screaming, he was screaming and then Coach is just looking at him and he’s got his U.S.A. Basketball shirt on and Coach was like ‘Hey, you couldn’t wear a Pirates shirt today and support us a little bit?’”
“But we know he was watching all 40 minutes and we know he was locked in just like if he was at the game.”
Again, Willard had to douse some lighthearted but medically serious water on McKnight’s anecdote.
“I told him to turn off the lights. He’s jumping all around, he’s not supposed to be jumping around. He did most of the talking, he just said how proud he was and how much he missed us, and then I yelled at him because he’s supposed to be in a dark room not doing anything, and he’s not doing it.”
The good news for Powell, Sandro, and the team is that the rest of the supporting cast has proved they can win.
Sophomores in Jared Rhoden and Anthony Nelson along with freshman Tyrese Samuel are accumulating some serious early-season reps that will yield dividends when called upon in key spots in February and March.
Rhoden matched his 12 rebounds against an undersized Florida A&M while Nelson was more than a net plus efficiency-wise: ten points (4-6 fg), four assists, three turnovers, and two steals in his first career start.
Not to mention Nelson’s defender-splitting drive to the hoop from the wing amidst seven Maryland points in the homestretch of the game.
Part of Seton Hall’s telling ball movement and team defense that invoked 17 turnovers and countless deflections was that these guys didn’t have a big brother in Powell to lean on anymore.
While the execution was lacking at times, the approach was correct and the signs were there.
For the first time in awhile and never in such dire circumstances, the onus was on the supporting cast.
And in the first of what looks like at least two, likely three games down one starter and one All-American, the cast has passed the test.
“I’ve said this since Sandro went down: I’ve said it’s only going to help us come February,” predicted Willard.
“The amount of time that Jared’s getting — Jared didn’t play last year at the beginning of the year, Ant played sparingly, he came in and got spot minutes — so these guys are now getting big-time minutes in big-time games.
“It’s only going to help them and help us. It’s going to give them confidence, and they know when they’re on the floor, they can do it.”