Seton Hall fans and players alike were elated on Saturday, Dec. 6 after SHU roasted Rutgers for the second straight year to win the Garden State Hardwood Classic, 84-55.
One of the most excited people in blue and white was Pirates forward Michael Nzei, who made his first collegiate start in the shellacking of SHU’s in-state rival. Filling in for the injured Ismael Sanogo (shoulder), the 6-foot-7- inch, 200-pound Nigerian native notched a double-double, tallying 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting to accompany 12 rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block in 31 minutes of action.
“I thought Michael played just phenomenal,” head coach Kevin Willard said after the game. “He was active on defense, and stepping up and getting on the offensive glass really helped. Mike has a high energy level, ran the floor well, used his length really well for the first time.”
“I was just out there playing and doing what coach asked me to do,” Nzei said. “I just wanted to play hard.”
It was an impressive performance for Nzei, who did not participate in the first annual Garden State Hardwood Classic last season. He said he was thrilled to have an impact on the rivalry this time around.
“Last year I watched, but this year I’m glad to be part of it,” Nzei said. “Last year I saw the way my teammates picked it up and the joy we gave the fans after the game, so I felt like we had to do the same thing.”
Nzei actually did not participate at all during the 2014-15 campaign, as academic issues required the freshman to redshirt. To make matters worse, a lingering wrist injury forced him to the sidelines for many of the Pirates’ practices. All in all, it was a lost year for the big man.
This year things are different, though.
Nzei has been one of Seton Hall’s more productive players off the bench so far this season, averaging 13.9 minutes, 5.9 points and 4.3 boards a game. Not one to voyage beyond mid-range, his 80 percent field goal percentage leads the team (excludes players averaging less than five minutes per game). With Willard having already ruled Sanogo out for the Hall’s game against Troy on Thursday, Nzei will likely get another crack at the starting lineup.
Such news would be music to the ears of Angel Delgado, who had his best game of the year on Saturday. With Nzei by his side in the frontcourt, the reigning Big East Rookie of the Year racked up a double-double of his own with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Nzei crashed the glass all after- noon and demonstrated more of an offensive game than the defensive-minded Sanogo has, which had previously resulted in opponents double-teaming Delgado in the post.
“The four spot really helped us,” Willard said. “Michael really helped him (Angel). Where Ish has really been helping us defensively I think Michael helped him by finishing and being that other guy in there.”
“Angel’s a beast,” Nzei said. “You just gotta help him out. He always helps you.”
The two will get another shot to give one another a hand on Thursday Dec. 10 when the Trojans visit South Orange. The game is slated to start at 8 p.m.
Gary Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GPhillips2727.