One night after Rhode Island picked apart Seton Hall’s defense for 54 first-half points, the Pirates responded with a stout defensive performance in a 72-59 victory over Vanderbilt in the third-place game of the NIT Tip-Off Friday night.
A heightened defensive intensity on the court was reflected in the statistics, as Seton Hall held the Commodores to 33.9 percent shooting from the field and 20.8 percent from deep while forcing 16 Vanderbilt turnovers, resulting in a lengthy scoring drought that spanned 11 minutes for Vanderbilt.
Playing a big part in Seton Hall’s defensive resurgence was the return of senior forward Ismael Sanogo to the starting lineup in place of Michael Nzei. Sanogo made his presence felt right away, blocking two Vanderbilt shots within the first five minutes of the game and went on to block four on the night. He also finished with eight rebounds.
“I just wanted to be the aggressor on defense and not let the other team run what they’re doing,” Sanogo said. “From what it looks like based on the results of the game, it worked.”
“Mike [Nzei]’s been playing great, but I just felt like that first unit needed more of a defensive spark,” coach Kevin Willard said of his decision to shift Sanogo back into the starting lineup. “Mike covers Angel [Delgado] offensively, but I felt as the games go on, we needed to cover him defensively and Ish does the best job of that.”
The Pirates got out to a quick 11-4 lead over Vanderbilt thanks to Sanogo’s strong defensive effort and seven early points from senior forward Desi Rodriguez, who finished with a game-high 27 points on 12-21 shooting, adding five rebounds.
Offense slowed down a bit after that, with both teams struggling to find the bottom of the net for extended periods on multiple occasions during the first half. Vanderbilt did not register a point in the last 4:27 of the first half heading into halftime, and Seton Hall went cold during that time as well.
Despite the extended Vanderbilt drought, Seton Hall trailed 32-31 heading into halftime. Fortunately for the Pirates, the Commodores continued to struggle to put points on the board, not scoring until the 13:28 mark of the second half on a free throw. The Pirates took advantage of Vanderbilt’s troubles from the field, going on a 19-2 run that gave them a 46-36 lead by the U-12 timeout.
Seton Hall’s lead ballooned to 56-42 by the U-8 timeout, as the shots would not fall for Vanderbilt in the second half. The Commodores shot 6-29 (20.7 percent) from the field in the second half, along with an 0-12 performance from behind the three-point line.
The win was an important one for a No. 20 Seton Hall team coming off a shocking 75-74 loss to Rhode Island the prior night, as Rodriguez and Willard noted after the game.
“We just knew we had to bounce back,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t want to keep dwelling on the past. It was a bad loss for us, but we definitely had to bounce back and get a W today and that’s the most important part.”
“We had a great film session this morning, we had a great walkthrough this morning,” Willard said. “This team’s motivated to keep getting better.”
Next up for the 5-1 Seton Hall Pirates will be a trip to Madison Square Garden on Nov. 30, where they will take on a tough Texas Tech team that Willard likens to his Seton Hall team.
“Texas Tech is phenomenal,” Willard said. “They’re a lot like us; they’re a senior team with a lot of young guys.”
Tip-off for the Under Armour Reunion event is set for 6:30 p.m.
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.