NEWARK, N.J. – With a résumé-building win ripe for the taking, a maturing Seton Hall men’s basketball team was forced to settle for a valuable lesson in execution, as Louisville stole Saturday’s non-conference fixture, 70-65.
Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard had joked during Big East Media Day that Chris Mack, now leading Louisville but prior to this season head coach at Big East foe Xavier, “could not get out of Newark.” On Saturday, he escaped with a win, despite the fact that his team only led for 5:41 of the 40 minutes.
The amped Pirates were forced to chase the Cardinals in the last 3:39, but the adversity of falling behind did not deter the young team. The final three of Powell’s game-high 23 points cut the deficit to one with 2:02 remaining, and Seton Hall then got the stop it needed to set up a game-changing possession.
But what followed was a scattered sequence of passing and movement that ended with an off-balance Myles Cale floater, and the sophomore’s shot hit the front of the rim.
When Louisville guard Ryan McMahon later sunk a wide open three-pointer on the other end, a surreal realization settled inside the arena. Despite unquestionable heart and tenacity for 40 minutes, the Pirates stared down a second consecutive home non-conference loss, after 29 straight wins in such games prior.
The lesson from Saturday afternoon is one in composure. A focused Pirates team, feeding off the energy inside a festive Prudential Center, jumped out to big leads, but could never maintain them. Meanwhile, a Cardinals team that committed 16 turnovers – nine more than Seton Hall – found a way to be in front when it mattered most.
Seton Hall had a 10-point lead with 13:57 left in the first half, but Louisville had the response, using well-worked three-pointers and thunderous transition dunks to slowly but surely chip away the lead. With 47 seconds remaining in the opening period, Louisville took its first lead of the game.
“I thought we took a couple shots, during the first half stretch and during the second half stretch, we were up eight, up nine, and that kind of let them get in transition, and let them get some easy looks,” Willard said.
Relinquishing a lead in such a manner could have been demoralizing, but Seton Hall came out with the same spirit in the second half.
After extending the lead to seven with a perfect trip to the free throw line, Myles Powell snatched the ball away under his own basket on the next possession, dribbled the length of the court and finished in traffic with 13:52 remaining. A nine-point lead in the same juncture, and, like the first half, it did not last.
Sophomore Sandro Mamukelashvili shuffled stride-for-stride with Christen Cunningham, as the Louisville guard dribbled along the outside of the key with 40 seconds remaining, before turning and finding an abandoned McMahon for the game’s decisive moment.
While not culpable for the clinching three-pointer, Mamukelashvili – who finished with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting – recognizes his role in turning around the offensive inconsistency that allowed Louisville back into the game on multiple occasions.
“My three is not falling right now, but I’m constantly working on it,” Mamukelashvili said. “I feel like it’s low confidence. But, I’m always at the gym trying to get more shots up, so I can feel better from the perimeter. I feel like it will help our game a lot, because they’re going to have to close out and we’re going to have more open drives.”
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.