With time winding down against Saint Louis on Nov. 17, Sandro Mamukelashvili found himself wide open at the top of the key with a chance to erase all the memories of a freshman season plagued by inconsistencies across the board.
In his first season at Seton Hall, Mamukelashvili found himself playing behind program legend Angel Delgado and the always-solid Ismael Sanogo in the frontcourt. Minutes were scarce and most of the time Mamukelashvili spent on the floor was in low-leverage situations. Other than a breakout performance on the road against Xavier in February, Mamukelashvili struggled to consistently string together solid performances. Some games, the Georgia native would flash the skills that made him a top recruit coming out of Montverde Academy in Florida, while he would disappear and become a non-factor in others.
“Last season was kind of a learning experience for me,” Mamukelashvili said. “I was behind the best player in the country. Every time I was going against him in practice, he was boxing me out and showing me tricks, so I feel like what he taught me shows in the game. Last year, I didn’t have that much confidence because I knew I was in for a certain amount of minutes. Now when coach puts me in, I want to show him that I deserve my minutes. I’m just trying to do my best.”
After Delgado and Sanogo graduated, Mamukelashvili was thrust into the starting lineup and stepped into a key role in Seton Hall’s frontcourt. Alongside Michael Nzei, it would be on Mamukelashvili to make up for the lost production. Against Saint Louis, Mamukelashvili had a chance to create a signature moment in only his second game as a starter. With the scoreboard reading 66-64, Mamukelashvili pulled up from beyond the arc to give Seton Hall its seond win of the season.
Instead of a storybook end to the game, the shot was long and Seton Hall dropped its first home non-conference loss in 30 such games. A year ago, the miss would’ve been enough to deflate Mamukelashvili and send him into a funk, but 2018 is a different story for the sophomore forward.
Immediately after the loss, Mamukelashvili headed to the practice gym once the team arrived back on campus. It was midnight, but that did not deter Mamukelashvili from working on his game to ensure that the next time he had a chance like the one against Saint Louis, he would deliver.
Since the Saint Louis loss, Mamukelashvili has been playing inspired and confident basketball. Beginning with a trip to California in the Wooden Legacy Invitational, Mamukelashvili took matters into his own hands and displayed the killer instinct that piqued Seton Hall’s interest when he was in high school.
“I think the biggest thing with Sandro is the more confident he gets, the more comfortable he gets on the offensive end,” coach Kevin Willard said. “He’s doing a really good job rebounding the basketball and I think he’s doing a little bit of everything. He’s rebounding, he’s defending pretty darn well. I wouldn’t say he’s doing one thing great, but he’s doing a lot of things well.”
Mamukelashvili has played tough on both ends and his efforts have not gone unnoticed by his teammates and fans. After subbing out for the final time against New Hampshire, Mamukelashvili got a standing ovation from the crowd – proof that all of his hard work over the summer has finally paid off.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Mamukelashvili said of the ovation. “I feel like after the Saint Louis game, I was a little down because I missed the game winner, but the fans stuck with me and they really supported me. It’s amazing to come out and see familiar faces clapping for you.”
“Sandro’s perfect, he can do everything,” Myles Cale said. “He can score, rebound, pass and shoot. He has really improved since last year. Me and him have been in the gym all summer trying to get better and we knew our role this season would be a lot bigger.”
As the season progresses, Seton Hall needs Mamukelashvili to remain confident in his game and attack with a vengeance on a nightly basis. With Big East play nearing, the Pirates need Mamukelashvili ready to bang down low and go up against the best frontcourt players that the conference has to offer.
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.