Seton Hall had a week off to recharge, get healthy and work out the kinks that had plagued the Pirates throughout their recent losing streak. The expectation was that they would come out energized and hungry to end their three-game skid. Instead, Seton Hall couldn’t get out of its own way and turned in arguably its worst showing of the season in an 80-52 loss to No. 18 Villanova on Sunday.
“I think Nova came out fighting more than us. We didn’t match that,” said Michael Nzei. “If we fought as much as them, I think we would’ve kept the game close.”
In the first half alone, Seton Hall turned the ball over 14 times – 12 of those turnovers coming in its first 20 offensive possessions. Even when the Pirates were able to take care of the ball, the shots were not falling, as Seton Hall struggled to a 34-percent mark from the field.
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“When you have 14 turnovers in the first half, you give them opportunity after opportunity,” coach Kevin Willard said. “They’re too good, with the way [Phil] Booth and [Eric] Paschall are playing. You give them that many opportunities, they’re going to get you.”
Things got off to an inauspicious start for the Pirates, as they opened the game with two turnovers on their first two possessions. By the under-12 timeout, Seton Hall had turned the ball over six times in its first nine possessions, but only trailed 15-12 thanks to an 83-percent start from the field.
As the under-eight time out approached, Seton Hall had accumulated 12 turnovers in its first 20 possessions, but remained in the hunt. Trailing 20-16, Booth hit a three despite being fouled and from there, Seton Hall’s afternoon began to take a turn for the worst.
A 4:05 scoring drought ensued and the Wildcats were able to build a 30-20 halftime lead behind 14 points from Booth and 12 from Paschall, who eclipsed the 1,000-point milestone midway through the second half. The two seniors combined for 26 of Villanova’s first half points and finished the afternoon with a combined 42 points.
Villanova’s barrage from beyond the three-point line continued to open the second half, as Saddiq Bey hit a three from the wing to give the Wildcats what was at the time their biggest lead of the game at 13. As the half progressed, Villanova stayed hot from beyond the arc and finished the afternoon shooting 17-42 from deep – tying its season high for three-point makes in a game.
Following Bey’s shot from the wing, Michael Nzei responded with four straight points to cut Villanova’s lead to single digits. That was the closest Seton Hall would get for the remainder of the afternoon, as the Wildcats strung together a 12-2 run capped by a Collin Gillespie steal and three pointer to make it 45-26.
Gillespie’s make prompted a Seton Hall timeout and some major changes on the court for the Pirates. Coming out of the timeout, Willard turned to a completely new lineup and yanked all of his starters out of the game. Quincy McKnight, Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Sandro Mamukelashvili and Nzei all remained on the bench for an extended stretch, as Willard waved the white flag.
“I didn’t bench those guys. We have to play Wednesday and we have to play again on Saturday,” Willard said. “That was more or less, you’re down 21, I’m making sure the guys that have to play minutes on Wednesday are going to be fresh and are going to be healthy. We can’t afford another injury.”
Villanova kept its foot on the gas and built up a 31-point lead by the 9:12 mark. The lead was insurmountable and the Wildcats cruised for the remainder of the game as Seton Hall continued its struggles to find the bottom of the net. The Wildcats punctuated the win with a thunderous block, as Brandon Slater emphatically swatted a Jared Rhoden shot out of bounds to sum up Seton Hall’s afternoon in a nutshell.
Other than Cale, who finished with 14 points, no other Seton Hall starter finished in double figures. Villanova keyed in on Powell and limited the Pirates’ leading scorer to three points on 1-5 shooting. The Wildcats also forced the junior guard into seven turnovers in his worst performance of the season.
“He’s been our workhorse. The way he plays, he plays so hard, he plays with great energy, he leaves it out there every night. There’s not a time where he’s not giving it his all,” Willard said. “It’d be good for him to see the ball go into the bucket a little bit. He’s been in such a struggle the last couple of games to get open looks or see the ball go in even when he sees open looks. I have great confidence in him. He’s going to continue to grind himself out of this little funk he’s been in.”
“It’s also on us as his teammates to help him a lot out there,” Nzei said. “If you look at his face, there’s a lot of bruises on his face today, and on his thighs. Teams know he can score the ball. They’re always playing extra hard on him. He’s out there fighting and I think as a team, we have to support him. We all have to put ourselves together, come out as a team and play together.”
With the loss, Seton Hall drops to 3-5 in Big East play and 12-8 overall. It is also the Pirates’ latest loss on the road against Villanova, as Seton Hall has not defeated the Wildcats on the road since 1994.
This upcoming week is crucial for the Pirates, as they have Providence at home on Jan. 30 and Butler on the road on Feb. 2. Those two games could go a long way in determining how the rest of the season plays out, as it is now gut-check time for Seton Hall.
“As a group, it’s not just one person or it’s just not on the coaches,” Nzei said. “At this point, it’s on us to look at ourselves and see what we’re doing wrong individually and trying to bring everything we had when the season started and get back on track. It’s been a rough stretch, but in life, you’re going to get down. It’s about how we pick ourselves back up.”
“This group has to figure out if they’re going to come back [and fight],” Willard said. “They haven’t been faced with this situation, they haven’t gone through this league. You have a bunch of guys out there that are experiencing it for the first time. They’re going to have to decide if they’re going to show up and keep fighting or show up and keep getting smacked around.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.