NEWARK (N.J.) — Gunning to match the historic 1988-89 team’s 13-game win streak, reality came knocking as Xavier bullied No. 10 Seton Hall 74-62 on the way to their first loss of the Big East season.
Playing from behind since the opening tip, the Pirates were looking at a 30-6 deficit before their sleepy eyes could open — Seton Hall has now trailed at the half by a net 32 points over their last five games.
Awoken by the energy of Jared Rhoden (13p, 5r) and Sandro Mamukelashvili (10p, 3r) at the under-eight, the Pirates rallied to trail by only 12 at the half, but a combination of Naji Marshall and Tyrique Jones clutch shots and key plays in the second half kept Seton Hall at arm’s length.
Playing in front of an impressive 12,230, Seton Hall looked like they had turned the corner after Sandro’s mean drive to the hoop plus the foul to cut it to 60-53 with 6:59, but his missed free throw to cap off the play was one of many examples where the Hall just couldn’t get the ball to bounce their way when they needed it most.
Based on some recent performances, you could see this coming from approximately four miles down S. Orange Avenue.
“When you win ten in a row you’re kind of up there a little bit. You think ‘Yeah we’re playing great, nobody can beat us,’” admitted Mamukelashvili.
“I feel like it’s a little wake up call. Everything happens for a reason and we have each others back, we’ve got confidence. Next game we’re going to go in and forget about this game, that’s all Coach tells us and teaches us: move onto the next one, don’t ever dwell on your mistakes.”
“We just didn’t have good energy out there today. That first unit, I thought they had bad body language and just didn’t have good energy,” said Kevin Willard.
“And that’s why I went with Jared and Sandro, I felt good energy towards the end of that first half to get us back in striking distance.”
Among a litany of lopsided numbers in the box score, Seton Hall was out-boarded 51-22 and outscored 18-0 in second chance points, which really speaks to how Xavier brought the grit and workmanlike effort to Newark — the Pirates’ bread and butter.
“We got taken to the woodshed,” said Willard frankly before also labeling the effort “terrible”.
“We got down early, we started scrambling a little bit, and when you scramble against good, big, physical teams, you’re going to give up offensive rebounds.”
Willard’s assessment was stating the obvious, but it was also a message he conveyed to the team post-game.
“We have to work on our rebounding and be more tough and physical. He thinks, and he’s right, that they out-physicaled us,” said Mamukelashvili of the locker room chat.
“Offensive rebounds really killed us, that aspect of our game, we have to understand that Ro’ [Gill] tries to block every shot so we’ve got to be the ones to take a bigger step forward and get them rebounds. We’re going to work on rebounding and the help defense more.”
Beyond the lost battle in the trenches, looking at a 24-point deficit before you lace your shoes up never helps.
“I don’t think you have enough time,” said Willard when asked why the team fell behind 30-6.
“We’ve been a little shaky on offense for the last three games, I would say, especially at home. We haven’t played overly well offensively at home, and I thought we settled early on for too many jump shots. We settled for jump shots.”
Adding injury to insult, Quincy McKnight twisted to the court in a heap with a bad looking left knee injury with six to play.
It came not long after Sandro’s failed attempt to cut the deficit to six and left Prudential Center dead silent as he was helped to the locker room after writhing on the court in pain, putting no pressure on his injured leg.
The initial prognosis is as all over the map as the coronavirus, from Sandro claiming it’s just a “bruise” and that he’ll be back soon, to Willard dismissing an ACL injury outright on his AM570 radio interview, to Willard back-tracking a bit when he took the podium.
“The initial diagnosis: Looks OK. Nothing major, which is good, ACL and all that stuff. But we’re still going to have get an MRI [Monday]. … It looks like it [isn’t that bad]. That’s what the docs told me. They can usually tell right away with ligaments,” said Willard on the radio.
“I have no idea. Until I get an MRI, there will be no update on Q,” said Willard at the podium.
“I didn’t say it didn’t seem that bad, that’s not what I said. I said the preliminary was that it looked — most of the structural stuff was good, but they had no idea until he got an MRI. That’s exactly what I said on the radio. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor.
“He could be back tomorrow, he could be out for the rest of the season. I have no idea. I’m not worried about something I have no idea about, so don’t text me, I’m not answering it. We will put out a statement when we have — when I get the MRI results.”
After a collective exhale from Seton Hall nation following Willard’s radio interview, it now looks like we’ll have to wait until at least Monday.
And while McKnight could be deemed the most irreplaceable player on the team due to his intangibles and lead guard play, Myles Powell’s (9p, 3-14fg) poor shooting form since returning from concussion continued.
He’s now 19-of-75 (25%) from three over the nine games since returning.
“I think there’s a long list of why he’s doing it. I think teams are doing a really good job of throwing two or three guys at him off screens, they’re doing a really good job of putting a little bit bigger, taller guys on him,” said Willard, trying to diagnose Powell’s shooting.
“I think he’s gotten some good looks, it’s just every once in a while, you go through a stretch where you’re not shooting the basketball so well. He’s still working at it, he’s still putting the same time in the gym. He’s just struggling a little bit right now.”
Now with one blemish in Big East play, Seton Hall (16-5, 8-1) is faced with a road test at Georgetown before a trip to Philadelphia for Villanova.
With games coming thick and fast, the Pirates will need to bounce back or they could be looking at a losing streak heading into a historical buzz-saw.