It wasn’t supposed to end like this – not in the first round. Not again.
The Pirates had danced before. They had an easier road trip. They had more time to prepare and focus. They had the confidence of a team that nearly took it to Villanova its last time out, the confidence of a team that went 8-3 in the last 11 games prior to Selection Sunday.
They thought anything was possible heading into Friday’s NCAA Tournament game with Arkansas.
“We really feel like we can play for a national championship,” Myles Powell said earlier in the week.
Instead, the Pirates’ season came to an end on Friday, and a crushing one at that. One year after leaving Denver without a win, the Pirates did the same in Greenville, S.C.
Seton Hall, owning an eight-point lead midway through the second half, never sealed the deal. The Razorbacks matched SHU shot for shot down the stretch. Then, with the game wrapping up, Khadeen Carrington gave the ball away twice. And of course, there was the flagrant foul call against Desi Rodriguez that gave Arkansas two freebies and the ball with a one-point lead and 18.3 seconds remaining.
It was the pin in the Pirates’ collapse, a 77-71 Arkansas win sign, sealed and delivered by sloppy play and questionable officiating.
Heads hung, voices murmured and gazes blank, few had much to say in the locker room afterward.
“I wouldn’t blame it on just that last call,” Rodriguez said when asked about that flagrant that set college hoops Twitter ablaze. “I blame it on the way we handled the ball down the stretch. We didn’t take care of the ball. We didn’t get stops down the stretch. If we had got that done we never would have gotten to the point of a travel or a flagrant foul.”
For Seton Hall, it was a miserable end to a season the Pirates and their fans should hang their hats on. No one wanted the season to end like this, yet there were times where it seemed as if the Pirates wouldn’t even make it this far.
Having lost program star Isaiah Whitehead to the NBA and sparkplug Derrick Gordon to graduation, the Pirates had their doubters entering the 2016-17 season. Those doubts seemed founded when Seton Hall opened conference play with a 3-6 record, but the Hall, its rotation decimated by departures, crawled back from the bottom half of the Big East standings, leaving the NCAA’s selection committee without a choice.
It was a season of close games and hard-fought battles – the stick-it-to-the-haters type of year. It was one of growth for a group centered on four juniors – Rodriguez, Carrington, Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo. It was a season of personal achievement, as Carrington, Rodriguez and Delgado all scored their 1,000th points as Pirates while the latter cemented himself as one of this country’s elite big men.
There was the promise of Powell as well, offering high hopes for the immediate future. If Delgado stays – there’s a chance he follows Whitehead to The Association – the Pirates will boast four seniors in their starting lineup in addition to Powell and the incoming Myles Cale. It’s a longshot, but the blue and white are still in the Trevon Duval sweepstakes, too.
Unfortunately for fans, players and coaches alike, this season didn’t end the way many had hoped. The Arkansas loss hurts and it will for a while, but if you’re a Pirate, there was plenty to be proud of.
Kevin Willard wants to make sure that remains the case going forward.
“It’s hard when you lose and you have a [close] game,” the coach said. “But that’s hoops, man. That’s ball. It’s life. You’ve got to bounce back, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in these guys, how we’ll do and how we’ll bounce back next year.”
Gary Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @GaryHPhillips.