No. 23 Seton Hall men’s basketball trailed for 32 of 40 minutes on Thursday, trailing by as many as 13 points, but in the end, showed its resiliency as it prevailed over No. 25 Creighton 90-84 in the team’s Big East opener.
Each team experienced one of its star guards check out early in the first half. First, it was Khadeen Carrington, who went to the locker room just minutes into the game with a twisted ankle but returned shortly after. Next, it was Creighton guard Marcus Foster, who hobbled off the court with the help of two trainers with the Bluejays up 11-6 and did not return until several minutes later.
The Pirates took advantage of the 19.5 point-per-game hole Foster left and went on a 9-4 run, powered in part by the return of Ismael Sanogo from his one-game suspension. Sanogo entered like a player who was itching to right his wrongs, as he quickly scored to tie the game at 11, but also picked up two personal fouls in his first three minutes. Players and head coach Kevin Willard called Sanogo’s return a “family decision.”
“The seniors called a meeting, they were very adamant that [Ish] started with us,” Willard said. “He’s a big reason why we are where we are, they wanted him the rest of the way.”
“We know what [Ish] is capable of, he’s a big part of the team,” Desi Rodriguez said. “We all came together and agreed that Ish should play today; this is our senior year. We started with him, we don’t want to finish without him.”
The pendulum swung back and forth in the first half as the Pirates cut into the Bluejays’ lead and then allowed them to pull away. Carrington hit a three to make the game 38-35 with 4:29 left in the first half, exciting the crowd as the game was within one possession. The Pirates defense, however, gave spectators little to cheer about in the opening 20 minutes, as Creighton stormed past Seton Hall defenders for seven quick unanswered points.
Willard keyed in on Foster in a teleconference on Tuesday, but the Pirates had no answer for the 6-foot-3 guard in the first half, with Foster scoring 12 points in 15 minutes. The only thing that stopped him in the first was the knee ailment that held him out.
Foster was, however, non-existent for nearly the entire second half, as he did not record a field goal until the 3:32 mark. That shot was pivotal, though, as it gave Creighton the lead back 84-83 after Seton Hall had taken the advantage by as many as six.
“I thought we switched everything that they were doing,” Willard said. “We were switching aggressive in the second half, and that kind of got him going a little more away from the basket. And again…they’re too good offensively to let them get in a rhythm and we really let them get in a rhythm [in the first half].”
Earlier in the second half, Creighton almost brought the game out of Seton Hall’s reach as it established its largest lead of the game just over a minute into the second half with a 58-45 advantage. But, the Pirates were not done fighting, and got their spark from Myles Powell. The sophomore hit a three that jumpstarted a 10-3 run, and a three-pointer that came later cut the lead to 63-60, motivating Creighton to call a timeout.
Down 76-71 with just under nine minutes remaining, a controversial charge denied Seton Hall from potentially pulling the lead within two, with Rodriguez called for a foul.
From there, free throws brought Seton Hall to within touching distance at 76-75, after two came from Carrington and Rodriguez. Following that, Seton Hall reclaimed the lead for the first time since the opening two minutes with a Rodriguez lay-up.
Creighton had lost forward Toby Hegner amidst Seton Hall’s scoring burst after fouling out. However, similar to the injuries in the first half, the Pirates experienced a taste of the same medicine as Angel Delgado fouled out with Creighton in front with three minutes to play.
With time winding down, Carrington scored the games’ defining basket as he drove down the lane and finished his fifth and most important field goal, which gave Seton Hall an 85-84 lead.
Rodriguez secured the defensive rebound on the other end and sprung into offense. Even though Rodriguez did not convert on the other end, Michael Nzei was there to clean up, as he had done for most of the game, drawing the foul and making one of two from the line. Nzei finished the game with seven points and 14 rebounds, a career-high.
Delgado was thankful for his teammate’s contribution after the game.
“I was like ‘I love you so much right now,’” Delgado said. “It’s fun to play with Mike; Mike is a hard-worker, he works every single possession.”
“Mike has always been great for us,” Carrington added. “He always has the energy.”
It was not perfect execution at the line, but the Pirates made five of eight free throws down the stretch, which proved to be enough to hold off a Creighton team that struggled from deep for the entirety of the night, finishing 5-of-25 from distance.
With the win, the Pirates are the lone team to win their home game to start Big East play. The other four games have resulted in wins for the away teams.
Next for the Pirates will be defending home court in a New Year’s Eve tilt with St. John’s. For Delgado, each Big East game takes on extreme importance. There are only so many left for the core collection of seniors.
“We come for everybody’s head right now, that’s how we’re going,” Delgado said. “We worked too hard for this. We’re going crazy every game, we’re not giving up.”
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.