Kiera Alexander / Asst. Photography Editor
A little less than a week ago, Seton Hall was in a good spot to make its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. With a Quadrant 1 road win over Creighton in their back pocket coupled with an impressive non-conference resume, the Pirates were in prime position to go from on the bubble to safely in the field of 64.
Since then, the tide has turned and Seton Hall will now have to fight for its postseason life down the stretch following a 78-70 loss to St. John’s in which the Pirates were nearly run out of the building in the opening minutes.
Following a heartbreaking loss at the hands of the Pirates in December, St. John’s had its rematch with Seton Hall circled on its schedule for nearly two months. Everyone knew the Johnnies were going to come out with a vengeance, but apparently, the Pirates did not get the message and allowed the duo of Marvin Clark II and Shamorie Ponds to bury The Hall in the opening minutes.
Behind nine points from Clark and seven from Ponds, St. John’s opened up on a 20-5 run to build a lead that wound up being insurmountable for the Pirates. As Seton Hall saw most of its shots swatted away with authority, the Red Storm grew their lead to 28-5, promoting a 30-second timeout. In the first half alone, St. John’s had eight blocked shots and finished the evening with 12.
“It was definitely payback,” Ponds said of St. John’s hot start. “We always kept in the back of our minds what they did at the end of the game to us. We wanted to put our foot on their neck early.”
“You gotta give St. John’s credit, they came out and knew how important this game was,” coach Kevin Willard said. “They came out hungry like a pack of dogs and put us on our heels a little bit.”
Facing a 23-point deficit, Seton Hall turned it on a bit coming out of the timeout. An 11-0 run spanning 5:07 cut into St. John’s lead, but the Pirates still faced a double-digit hole. Spearheaded by gritty play from Shavar Reynolds, who was the only Seton Hall player who came anywhere close to matching St. John’s level of intensity in the first half, the Pirates hung around and cut the lead to 30-20 with just under three minutes remaining in the half. However, the Red Storm quickly erased Seton Hall’s glimmer of hope with an 8-0 to take a 38-20 lead into halftime.
Seton Hall’s halftime adjustments paid off in the opening minutes of the second half, as the Pirates opened with five consecutive points. Before long, St. John’s lead was down to single-digits for the first time since the opening minutes, but a layup from Ponds brought the lead back up to double figures and got the Red Storm back on track. Before long, St. John’s lead was back in the 20-point range after a three-pointer from Bryan Trimble Jr., who started in place of the injured Mustapha Heron, made it 57-35.
The Pirates spent the remainder of regulation trying to tack away at St. John’s lead. Seton Hall got it down to 68-62 with two and a half minutes left and for a minute, it looked like the Pirates might channel some of their Madison Square Garden to come all the way back and shock the Red Storm. However, a Myles Powell turnover with 1:09 remaining and a chance to make it a one-possession game proved to be the nail in the coffin for Seton Hall, as St. John’s held on for an eight-point victory.
“Sometimes the toughest thing is to manage such a great start,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said. “The game’s gonna change on its own. We weathered the storm.”
The determining factor in St. John’s ability to stymie Seton Hall’s offensive attack was its game plan to slow down Powell. From the opening tip, Chris Mullin sent Simon to faceguard Powell wherever he went. Seton Hall’s star struggled dealing with Simon’s relentless coverage, as he scored only four points and shot 2-8 from the field in the first half. Powell turned it on in the second half and finished the game with 26 points on 9-21 shooting from the field and 2-8 shooting from three, but none of his buckets came easy.
“Justin Simon is one of the best defenders in the country,” Mullin said. “He’s one of the best lockdown defenders in the country. He should be on one of those lists. Whoever makes those lists, you might want to add his name. I thought he picked up a few questionable fouls, so when he came off, [Powell] got loose a little bit. Justin did a great job, I thought of putting his imprint on the game. Justin did a good job and we did a good job making sure where [Powell] was.”
“When that team is locked in they way they are tonight, Justin Simon’s long, with Marvin Clark they can switch pick and rolls, LJ Figueroa I think is someone that doesn’t get talked about a lot defensively,” Willard said. “I think their switching and their length bothered us.”
The Pirates also suffered from cold-shooting from beyond the arc. Seton Hall shot only 5-20 from deep and Jared Rhoden, who has struggled shooting the ball from the perimeter this season, accounted for two of those three pointers. A ridiculous number of turnovers did not help The Hall’s cause, either. The Pirates nearly accounted for more turnovers (14) than points in the first half and turned the ball over a whopping 22 times once it was all said and done.
With the loss, Seton Hall drops to 16-11 and 7-8 in Big East play. Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova remain on the schedule, so it’s not going to get any easier as the Pirates close out their season eyeing a signature win or two to add to their schedule. However, this team has played with plenty of heart and resilience this season. Now, it’s all about bouncing back following a one-point loss to Xavier and a crushing loss to St. John’s to finish the season strong and ensure a return to the NCAA Tournament.
“We knew we had to win two out of the last four games today and that’s our goal,” Powell said. “Whatever it takes for us to get back to the tournament, I’m coach knows what we have to do and he’s going to let us know. That’s been our goal all year and we’re not going to stop fighting for what we want.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.