NEWARK – A fiery halftime speech from Kevin Willard motivated Seton Hall (5-1) to lock down on defense in the second half which would prove to be the difference in a must-have 69-62 win over Georgia (3-2) on Saturday night at Prudential Center.
Knotted up at 30 with the visiting Bulldogs at the half, one may have thought that Seton Hall’s eight-minute first half field goal drought could have been a key talking point for head coach Kevin Willard at the break. Instead, it was Georgia’s 56-percent first half shooting percentage that fired up the skipper.
“I just didn’t like the way we were reacting to the way they were scoring,” said Willard of his locker room talk. “I didn’t like our body language, our facial expressions when someone scored on us, it was too negative and it was hurting us on the offensive end. We just had a very nice polite conversation about that … I thought they responded good. They came out with much better defensive energy.”
“That’s probably the maddest I’ve ever saw him, ever,” admitted Isaiah Whitehead, who scored a game-high 22 points for Seton Hall. “He expects so much out of us and if we’re not doing what we know we can it just makes him furious.”
“Coach got on us, he told us we were playing like a bunch of babies, freshmen,” concurred Khadeen Carrington after a 20-point, 6-rebound effort.
After the Bulldogs shot 14-of-25 in the first 20 minutes, Seton Hall clamped down and allowed Georgia to go just 8-of-22 (36%) from the floor following Willard’s well-timed tirade.
Ismael Sanogo (0 pts, 8 rebounds) was held scoreless but did his job defensively and on the boards, Angel Delgado (5 pts, 11 rebs, 3 blks) came up clutch with offensive boards and blocks down the stretch and Isaiah Whitehead (22 pts) also made his mark behind the ball by single-handedly forcing several turnovers in the closing minutes.
In addition to Delgado’s two key late blocks, Whitehead played all out on a defensive possession to force a shot clock violation that was followed up by a banked-in Derrick Gordon (8 pts, 3 rebs) triple to give Seton Hall a 7-0 second half run.
The floor general wasn’t done and put together an even better sequence later on when he ripped the ball out of J.J. Frazier’s hands along the baseline and then drilled a long-range three to put Seton Hall up 67-59 and seal the game with 30 seconds left.
“The key to victory was when we started struggling offensively, we got stops,” said Willard. “I was really happy with the way they responded defensively when we weren’t playing well offensively. That’s a big difference from what happened last year.”
“It was a big point at halftime,” said Whitehead. “Just to see him fired up and just to see how much he thinks we can accomplish, it just got our guys fired up and want to play defense.”
Not all of Seton Hall’s second half defensive effort was conventional: 10 of the Pirates’ 13 offensive rebounds came after the half including seven from Sanogo and Delgado that provided crucial extra possessions to disrupt Georgia’s offensive flow.
“I got on him at halftime too,” said Carrington of Delgado’s second half epiphany. “I told him to stop crying, you’ve got to pick it up. He’s like my brother and he came through for me.”
The win gives Seton Hall their first three-game winning streak since beating Maine, Villanova and St. John’s to become ranked last January and is in response to a 65-47 drubbing in Athens last season.
“This is a big win for us,” said Carrington. “We’ve been saying all week that they kind of kicked our butts last year. It was a payback game.”
Seton Hall will look to win a fourth-straight game when they travel to D.C. to take on a top-30 George Washington squad on Wednesday night.