NEW YORK – On Saturday afternoon, Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard added the greatest regular season chapter to his Madison Square Garden history book. After 45 minutes filled with adrenaline, superlatives and almost insurmountable adversity, the Seton Hall men’s basketball team overcame Kentucky, 84-83.
The scene was primed for a classic, with a blue ocean of 10,244 inside the Mecca of basketball. The game started with a lack of basic field goal conversions, but ended with shot-making of the highest quality.
The mayhem truly began when Myles Cale made a cut to the basket with 1:31 to go in regulation and the Pirates down, 67-64. As he rose, so too did Kentucky forward P.J. Washington, who snatched the ball away, sending Cale back down in humiliating fashion.
The scene did not stop there, though, as Washington took a second to stare down at Cale, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
“I’m like ‘Ooh, aah.’ I’m looking at him, I’m like, ‘Aah, you got that one,’” Cale said. “I got up, shook it off, stayed with my teammates. It’s alright, it was a good block. He’s a really good player, really aggressive. You know, he got that one, had a good game, too.”
With his namesake humbled, Myles Powell had an answer. The Kentucky contingent were beginning to believe the blue tide had turned, but Powell stood tall and matched the Wildcats’ defensive effort by drawing an offensive charge.
The timely stop from Powell added to his scintillating 22-point second half performance that provided just enough for the resilient Pirates. On the other end, he nailed one of his five second half three-pointers to tie the game at 67 – the deafening roar drowning out the click of the net.
“I’m just a scorer, and, I know my team needs me to score,” Powell said. “Like I’ve been saying all year since I got here, when my Coach is telling me, ‘Shoot the ball, shoot the ball, shoot the ball,’ it’s kind of hard to second-think it. And, when I’m second-thinking, he can tell that I’m second-thinking.
“I missed the layup, got fouled and landed on my back. And you saw, when Coach called me over, that’s when he said, ‘If you don’t shoot your next open shot I’mma kill you.’ So, I took that with me, and I saw my next one go in, deep, from right in front of our bench. And, after that, I don’t think I missed.”
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Indeed, there was more to come from Powell. With less than a second separating shot and game clock, he uncorked a go-ahead three-pointer; in a way, unlocking a time machine and bringing back the same feeling of ecstasy that resonated inside Madison Square Garden during the 2016 Big East Tournament final.
“We went into our huddle and said, ‘Look, you defended great, the kid made a ridiculous shot,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “So, let’s just play ours, let’s do what we’re doing.”
After Powell’s last-second three, it was the Pirates who sensed victory, but the Wildcats had their own late-game magic.
“And that’s when we set up the last play and we make it,” Calipari said.
While referees reset the clock – adding four one-hundredths of the second to the initial 1.1 remaining – Willard struggled to feel settled, even though Kentucky was in need of a full-court prayer.
“I was so mad, it was my fault,” Willard said. “I’ve never, ever put a guy on the ball. We practice with a free safety…it makes no sense having a guy on the ball. I’ve never had a seven-footer, and so, I thought, I’ll be smart. I didn’t even have Romaro [Gill] going in, I had Shavar [Reynolds] going in to play defense and being the free safety.
“And then, it took so long for them to review it that, I just had too much time to think and I said, ‘Let me outthink myself,’ and I put Romaro in, and it was stupid. The one thing you try to cover is the middle of the floor in that situation, because, if a guy’s shooting from a sideways angle, the odds of him banking it in are almost zero.”
Kentucky guard Keldon Johnson caught the ball and, centered on the court, took one dribble and clanked the ball off the back of the rim and in. The miraculous shot sent the reeling Pirates to overtime, without frontcourt players Sandro Mamukelashvili and Michael Nzei.
“This is the first time we’ve really been in bad foul trouble with Mike and Sandro both being out,” Willard said. “They’re my security blankets on defense, because they know what to do and they help everybody out. Not having both out there – I thought Taurean [Thompson] played some great minutes.”
Thompson was the only natural paint presence in the end, forcing 6-foot-4 guard Quincy McKnight, who was tenacious all game with 15 points and five assists, to fight for rebounds against players who were four to five inches taller.
Seton Hall clung to the lead for over four minutes of the extra period, but Kentucky stole the advantage with 42 seconds remaining, and padded it with a 1-for-2 trip to the line at the 23-second mark. With the Pirates down by two, 83-81, the game’s defining moment played out.
The Pirates’ late-game execution had been maligned after losses to Saint Louis and Louisville, but, in overtime, Kevin Willard’s young team was methodical and efficient, and the game-winning conversion was its very best display.
Freshman Anthony Nelson dribbled along the paint and dished the ball to McKnight in the corner. Sensing the pressure, he dribbled forward, but into a crowded paint. The veteran point guard sent the ball to Thompson at the three-point line, and the 6-foot-11 forward faked a shot to move past one defender and drew out another with his dribble.
The deception and step forward opened up a pass to Cale, but Washington quickly closed in looking for another block. This time, though, Cale pumped his arms and sent the Kentucky forward flying. He calmly began his shooting motion a second time and converted the winning three, and McKnight got his fingertips on the buzzer-beating attempt at the other end.
It was a frenetic finish that threatened heartbreak, but the outcome was, in fact, the perfect remedy to three early non-conference losses. Seton Hall, now 6-3, have a quadrant 1 win to add to its Wooden Legacy title.
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.