NEW YORK – Trailing 52-51 with 11 to play after throwing away a 14-point lead, it looked like Seton Hall was going to be shocked by Creighton and the hot shooting hand of Cole Huff (35 points, 7-11 3pt), but a hard-nosed closing quarter from the Hall, mainly from their guards, got the job done in a nail-biter at the Garden.
Seton Hall was able to pack the lane and hold Maurice Watson Jr. to just 6 points and 6 assists while Huff was clearly the star of the night, hitting big shot after big shot for the Bluejays. The Pirates were also able to dominate the battle on the glass 45-25 after the dust settled — another key going into the game.
“Desi [Rodriguez] and Isaiah [Whitehead] both had 6 and 8 in the first half, which really kind of got us going,” said Kevin Willard of his team’s rebounding effort which replicated their dominance in Omaha.
Leading 39-30 coming out of the half, Seton Hall relinquished any momentum they had when they turned it over twice and Cole Huff capitalized by scoring 9 of Creighton’s first 11 points out of the break as the tempo was kicked up a few levels.
The Jays continued their surge by taking a 52-51 lead into the under-12, their first since the 16:07 mark of the first half. Creighton was able to cash in by scoring 18 points off 14 Seton Hall turnovers to that point.
Seton Hall stemmed the tide by not turning it over for the next five minutes and just twice the rest of the way.
“I think every win this time of year is really important,” said Willard of his team’s resilience. “[But] to do it when you’re up nine and they came out and they really brought it to us, to fight back… I look at it that way: lose the lead and to fight back, I think that was really important.”
After clawing back, it looked like the Hall had wrapped things up with two minutes to play after Derrick Gordon forced an unconscious Cole Huff to miss a go-ahead three and then knock down one from the corner.
“I think he’s three for his last three,” said a serious but joking Willard about Gordon’s shot. “We might throw a party for him when we get back to the hotel.”
Down 5 with 2 minutes to play, Creighton wasn’t done yet.
The Jays cut their deficit to a bucket with under a minute to play, but Isaiah Whitehead and Khadeen Carrington — who set an impressive but stealthy careeer-high of 27 — would combine for all 10 of Seton Hall’s points after Gordon’s big triple to seal the deal.
Carrington nailed several mid-range jumpers — a growing specialty of his — while Whitehead’s pure will to come down on his tailbone for his 11th rebound after a missed free throw prevented him from attending Seton Hall’s press conference due to treatment.
When I asked Willard about Whitehead’s desire to win down the stretch, this is what he told me.
“I think all these guys, their will to win is unbelievable. It’s why they’re here, it’s why they came as a group, it’s what they’re focused on. It’s why I got Co-Coach of the Year. You’ve seen my offense, it’s not great.
“I got it because of him, I got it because of these players. They have a will. Isaiah and Khadeen, they don’t like to lose. Zeke [Isaiah] doesn’t like to lose. Sometimes he goes off and there are moments you look at him and you’re shaking your head, but he wants to win.
“That’s all we talk about in huddles. We’ve come a long way, we used to talk about lobsters and cheerleaders. Now, we’re talking about what it takes to get a stop. This is a group — again — I’ve used the word special. It’s been a blast, man. I’ve had so much fun watching these guys grow and they’re still puppies. Year-old puppies, but they’re still great.”