DENVER – Midnight struck — literally and figuratively — on a program-reviving Seton Hall season in a humbling 68-52 defeat at the hands of Gonzaga late last night at the Pepsi Center.
As clocks all across northern New Jersey inched toward midnight local time, Seton Hall (25-9, 12-16) crept ever-closer to bowing out of the first round of the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive time, though 10 years removed from their thrashing at the hands of Wichita State in 2006.
The worst offensive performance all season from both their leading scorer and the team as a whole, Seton Hall was ultimately crippled by an eight-plus minute field goal drought to close the first half, in turn digging themselves a 10-point deep hole they couldn’t recover from.
Whether it was the mile-high altitude that didn’t favor Seton Hall, unfavorable officiating, an unstoppable Domantas Sabonis, or most importantly a Pirate offense that ran aground early and often, it appeared the ‘time was now’ for this team to end what irrevocably was a magical two months and season as a whole.
But a first round exit is still a punch to the gut.
It always is, no matter how well a team performs prior to Selection Sunday.
“It can only get better from this year [on],” said a glossy-eyed Isaiah Whitehead, who spoke as if he plans to return next season before saying he has a decision to make.
“We had an amazing year, we won the Big East Championship. There’s not a lot of sophomores that actually did that, to win a Big East championship with a group of sophomores and one senior.”
“It’s been an amazing year,” said lone senior Derrick Gordon, who had his head in his hands as the final seconds ticked off the Pepsi Center clock, as if not looking could extend the collegiate career of a winner.
“My senior year, finishing out the way we did, [but I] would have wished things went a lot better tonight … [but] I can’t look down at it.”
Picked in the bottom tier of the Big East pre-season, many Seton Hall fans will consider this year a success — and rightly so. A ‘Cinderella’ title would have probably required a Sweet 16 berth, but most fans and media did not see this sort of success coming; a bubble team come March was the realistic goal.
“The only one that is surprised is you guys,” said Whitehead when asked by media about this year being a shock. “We worked really hard in the summer and we knew that we’d have a great team this year.”
Looking toward next year, the level of turbulence that will be felt this off-season appears to have a wide variance, and it starts with Whitehead.
“We’ve got a tough squad,” continued Isaiah. “If you look at it, we’re all sophomores, we all return except Derrick [Gordon] but we add some nice pieces, so it should be a good year.”
This could just be comforting talk from Whitehead, who may turn out to be the linchpin that holds this class of rising juniors together to address what is surely unfinished business for a group that pulled up short on the ultimate stage.
Minutes after telling media as he sat in front of his Pepsi Center locker that the goal next year is “just getting back here”, Whitehead reaffirmed the obvious: exploring professional options is very much on the table despite not being projected as an NBA draft pick on multiple mock draft sites.
“I’ve got to sit down and think about what’s best for me,” he said. “That’s to be determined when I sit down with my mom, whenever the deadline is for the draft, just sit down and talk to her about what’s best for me next year.”
Whitehead’s uncertain outlook coupled with a first round loss that was processed like a horse pill somewhat poisons the well, though hopefully only momentarily — until the scope of what transpired from November to March sets in.
It was a season with plenty of “first time in…” prefixes that raised the bar to levels that date back 15-plus years in the annals of Hall hoops history.
“It’s been an unbelievable year with this group, a really young group,” said Whitehead. “We can only look at the future.”
As of now, that future is waiting. Waiting for him to pull the trigger, one way or the other. And seven long months of waiting for the balls to be rolled out on another season.
For Seton Hall fans, the hope is that just a little bit more patience will yield more progressive results in 2016-17.
Because as far as I see it, there’s unfinished business.