It was supposed to be an uphill climb for the Seton Hall Pirates this season and it was in many respects, but no one could’ve predicted how this young team would handle the ups and downs of the Big East season and Big East Tournament.
Growing pains hurt the Pirates early in the season and young players were searching for their roles on the team. Those pains included tough early season losses and games where it seemed like Myles Powell didn’t have any help on the court.
As the season went on, Kevin Willard and his staff molded this team starting on the defensive end and worked his way out to the offensive side of the game as well. One-on-one sessions with players like Sandro Mamukelashvili and Jared Rhoden for example have allowed them grow leaps and bounds this season.
The Pirates grinded through non-conference and picked up head-turning wins while playing their toughest out of conference schedule in years. Then the Big East Conference opened up play and it became tougher. Still, they kept fighting and that theme began to define this team.
They had some tough moments. The blowout loss at Villanova. Dropping the home games to DePaul and Xavier. Losing the heartbreaker in double overtime to Georgetown in DC two weeks ago from tonight.
It felt like it was over. They had come so close to getting to the NCAA Tournament. Pirate fans were irate on Twitter and making NIT plans.
Nothing changed. Not for the Pirates. They continued to stay the course and they bounced back.
Seton Hall would win four straight over Marquette, Villanova, Georgetown and then Marquette again all in dramatic fashion. The last two coming in the Big East Tournament.
That set the stage for tonight’s championship game. The Pirates put all their chips down in the middle.
Myles Powell had 25 points, five rebounds and four assists. His shot in the final seconds was too strong off the back rim and would’ve given the Pirates the lead.
Quincy McKnight did an amazing job guarding Phil Booth and the conference’s top players the entire tournament. Tonight he limited Booth to just 16 points in the game.
Anthony Nelson, a freshman who doesn’t get a whole lot of minutes, stepped in when McKnight briefly left with an injury and had 12 points, two rebounds and two assists to keep the Pirates hanging around.
Players stepped up and grinded to stay in it and had a chance to win the game at the end, but the shot from Powell missed and the last second inbounds did not get to Sandro Mamukelashvili on the last play.
Willard after the game expressed, in defeat, the pride he had in the way his team continued to fight even after all of Villanova’s haymakers including the Jermaine Samuels dagger from three to put the Wildcats up seven with three and half minutes to go.
He has felt pride in his team all year and even more after the Big East Tournament run.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Willard said. “I’m so proud of what we accomplished and where we are. I’m also excited, if we play that hard next week, I’m excited about next week.”
Willard is the first coach in Seton Hall history to lead his team to four straight 20-win seasons and has now led the team to four straight NCAA Tournaments after the Pirates were picked to finish eighth in the Big East this season.
“He should have won Coach of the Year,” Powell said during the postgame presser.
“Thanks, kiddo,” Willard replied. “I really appreciate that vote of confidence. You’re the best.”
Certainly, it is a tough loss. The Pirates came within a shot of winning their second tournament title in four seasons.
“We had a good opportunity to make history tonight,” Powell said. “I mean, we are definitely hurting from it. Everybody was comparing us to the 2016 team, and we just wanted to match their legacy. When you come up short like that, it kind of hurts.”
Powell, much like his coach, saw the bigger picture as well.
“We have a lot to be proud of. We fought.” Powell said. “And at the end of the day, that is all you can ask for.”
Powell and McKnight were named to the Big East All-Tournament team for their great performances at MSG this week and continue their strong play of late.
Now the Pirates will look to continue their run in the NCAA Tournament and will be eager to see where they end up on Selection Sunday.
“To be honest with you, I’m more looking forward to the NCAA Tournament.” Willard said. “I have more confidence in my team than I think I ever have.”