On a night that was dedicated to honoring one of the most iconic senior classes in program history, it was only fitting that two members of it took over and helped the Pirates lock up the No. 3 seed in the Big East Tournament.
Thanks to 25 points from Khadeen Carrington and 21 points and 10 rebounds from Angel Delgado, the Pirates held on for a 77-70 victory over a resilient Butler team that remained within striking distance throughout the night.
“It’s who they are, it’s what they’ve done their whole career,” coach Kevin Willard said of Carrington and Delgado. “To see where they started and where they are now, they’ve played the same way all four years, they didn’t change. They were going to everything they could do tonight to make sure we didn’t lose.”
The early stages of Saturday evening’s contest had a veteran flavor to it, as Carrington and Delgado combined to score Seton Hall’s first 13 points. It was not until Michael Nzei, who was also a part of the 2014 recruiting class, flushed home a two-handed slam off a feed from Myles Powell that another Seton Hall player broke into the scoring column.
While Carrington and Delgado were scoring at will, Butler’s senior standout Kelan Martin was putting on a show of his own to keep the Bulldogs in the game. Despite shooting only 3-of-10 from the field in the first half, Martin, who finished with a game-high 35 points, managed to score 10 in the half and carried a Butler offense that otherwise could not get anything going. Due in large part to Martin’s efforts, the two teams exchanged blows and went back and forth, as the lead changed hands six times throughout the half.
Behind 25 combined first-half points from Carrington and Delgado, Seton Hall held a slim 31-27 lead at halftime, despite shooting a porous 34 percent from the field in the half.
The opening minutes of the second half served as a continuation of the first, as Martin and the duo of Carrington and Delgado continued to trade buckets. However, Butler’s inability to get anyone other than Martin in a rhythm eventually came back to bite them, as the Pirates went on a 10-2 run and opened up a 57-48 lead with 6:57 remaining in regulation.
With their backs against the wall, the Bulldogs refused to go away and cut Seton Hall’s lead to 58-54 by the four-minute mark. A common theme throughout the night, the Pirates punched back and responded with another run, punctuated by a Nzei dunk with 1:32 left to make it a 66-57 game.
“Mike’s been phenomenal, he’s played this way all year,” Willard said. “When I talk about this group, I always include Mike because he’s always been just as special. You’re talking about a kid who’s going to graduate with a 4.0 GPA in the business school here. That ain’t easy.”
Looking to put the game away, Carrington drilled a three from the top of the key to give Seton Hall a 10-point lead with 1:03 left. However, Martin refused to let the Bulldogs go down without a fight and knocked down two heavily contested threes to keep Butler within 73-68 with 18 seconds left.
Martin’s shot at that time turned out to be Butler’s last hoorah, as Seton Hall put the game away at the free throw line and held on for the victory. The end of Seton Hall’s hard-fought win did not come without its fair share of emotion, as Desi Rodriguez, who did not play due to an ankle injury, greeted Carrington and Delgado at the scorer’s table as they checked out for the final time and engaged in a group hug with his teammates, capping an emotional night for Willard.
“I was actually more emotional [during the pre-game meeting], it was the hardest pre-game talk I’ve ever had,” Willard said. “I broke down and I had to go back in my locker room and look in the mirror. I thought I got my stuff together and then I was at half court and I looked up and I started watching the [pre-game tribute] video.
“They’re like my oldest sons. I’ve been with them for six years, technically. You recruit them and then they’re with you and I spend more time with them for eight months than I do with my own family. You have such a feeling of pride because you watch them grow and you’re proud of what they accomplish and the men they’ve become.”
With the No. 3 seed locked up, Seton Hall’s focus now shifts to the Big East Tournament, where the Pirates will play No. 6 seed Butler for the third time this season on Thursday night at 9:30 p.m.
“It’s weird [playing Butler for a second consecutive game], but it’s better than playing someone like Creighton,” Willard said. “From a scouting standpoint, from the guys knowing what we’re doing, we have four days to work on us and understand what we’re going against. For us, it helps and for Butler, it helps.”
Just as they were two years ago when they won it all, the Pirates will be heading into the tournament in a familiar setting as the No. 3 seed.
“If we would’ve lost this game, we would’ve ended up seven and having to play the first night,” Carrington said. “We got the three seed now and now it’s win or go home. It’s going to be a dogfight every game we play from now on.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.