Goodbye bubble, hello NCAA Tournament.
Entering the week, Seton Hall’s season was on life support. Following a crushing double-overtime loss to Georgetown, the Pirates needed to pull a rabbit out of their hat and defeat both No. 16 Marquette and No. 23 Villanova in the final week of Big East play to flip the script and improve their chances at a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. In front of a sold-out Prudential Center crowd, Seton Hall did just that and capped a season-saving stretch with a 79-75 victory over Villanova on Saturday afternoon.
“I’ve been saying this all week, we’re fighters,” said Myles Powell. “Our backs have been against the wall all year, but this was our biggest challenge. We faced the two top teams in our conference and we came out with our heads high and we got the job done.”
After almost single-handedly willing the Pirates to victory against Marquette, Powell had another big game with 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists. This time around, he also got help from Myles Cale, Sandro Mamukelashvili and Jared Rhoden Cale finished with 19 points, while Mamukelashvili recorded a career-high 18 rebounds and Rhoden scored a career-high 15 points.
“Sandro played the other night with a really bad contusion on his thigh and really gutted it out,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “Myles Cale has been getting a lot of attention. I think for the sophomores to kind of step up to this stage, it’s great. It’s a great learning experience for them and I think the fact that Myles Powell had the confidence to keep with them gave them a huge lift.”
“My brothers, every time I do well, they’re the first to come pat me on my back and tell me how proud they are of me,” Powell said. “To see my brothers shining like that, Sandro, we were making fun of him calling him Angel today. Myles Cale, what was he from three? We stayed together as a group. We knew they beat us by 30 and we wanted some revenge.”
Aware of what was at stake, Seton Hall came out of the gate on fire. Powell opened the scoring with a three-pointer and the Pirates followed that up by sending the Prudential Center into its first frenzy of the day by forcing a shot-clock violation. By the under-16 timeout, the Pirates held a 10-5 lead and all of the early momentum.
“Seton Hall played really well right from the start,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They were very locked in and ready to play. For whatever reason, or a number of little reasons, we didn’t have our guys ready to play from the start. They jumped us early and it took us until the second half to really get going. We started competing in the second half, it just wasn’t enough.”
Coming out of the timeout, Rhoden registered a corner three and Powell answered a Villanova three at the other end by coming down and nailing a step-back three of his own. By the nine-minute mark, Rhoden had already accumulated nine points, which played a major role in Seton Hall’s early-game surge.
“He’s going in a way that most freshmen do,” Willard said of Rhoden. “He’s starting to get some time, he’s starting to get comfortable. This league is brutal for freshmen and what I love about Jared is he has a great energy and he’s positive all the time. There’s never anything negative about Jared. I think that has helped him play well.”
Villanova responded as they did many times throughout the afternoon and cut Seton Hall’s lead down to 26-23 at the 5:12 mark. However, Seton Hall was prepared to go punch-for-punch with the Wildcats and responded with a spurt of its own. Two three pointers from Cale, a three from Powell and a put-back from Mamukelashvili off a Powell miss helped the Pirates build their biggest lead of the game and take a 39-28 lead into halftime.
Seton Hall stayed hot coming out of the locker room, extending its lead to 44-28 right out of the gate. Villanova wasted no time in getting back into the game though, as a string of baskets from Collin Gillespie, who led all scorers with 22 points and Eric Paschall, who overcame a first-half slump to finish with 14, cut the Pirates’ lead to four.
With the Wildcats nearing, Seton Hall ripped off a run of its own capped by a sequence that featured Mamukelashvili meeting Jermaine Samuels at the rim and blocking his dunk attempt. The block led to a three from Powell at the other end, sent the crowd into an uproar and gave the Pirates a 56-45 lead with 11:36 remaining.
Despite Seton Hall’s latest run and the fashion in which it occurred, Villanova refused to go away. Soon after the Powell three-pointer to make it an 11-point game, the Wildcats cut the lead down to 63-61. It was the closest Villanova would get, though, as the Pirates maintained their composure and never relinquished the lead despite some close calls down the stretch.
A layup by Powell gave Seton Hall a 66-63 lead with 4:12 remaining and a put-back by Mamukelashvili put the Pirates up 70-65 with just over two minutes remaining. Villanova threatened on a couple of offensive possessions thereafter, but failed to put points on the board thanks to some feisty defense from Cale and Mamukelashvili, who forced Gillespie to throw a pass out of bounds while trapped near half court.
With 41 seconds remaining, the Wildcats were granted life after Quincy McKnight inexplicably fouled Phil Booth on a shot from beyond the arc. Booth hit all three free throws to make it 74-71, but Seton Hall put the game away at the free throw line.
With the win, it’s safe to assume Seton Hall is now a near-lock to make the NCAA Tournament. A strong showing in the Big East Tournament will make it impossible for the selection committee to keep the Pirates out of the field of 64, but even if they bow out of the Big East Tournament after one game, Seton Hall has now done enough with wins over Kentucky, Maryland, St. John’s, Marquette and Villanova.
“I’m at a loss for words right now,” Powell said. “I want to call the seniors and tell them that I told them I was going to hold it down for them. I knew what it was gonna take. We played with our hearts today.”
“I think they can beat anybody,” Wright said. “They’ve done it. They’ve proven it. They beat Kentucky, Maryland, they beat Marquette and they’ve beaten us. They can beat anybody, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
Saturday afternoon’s triumph was also the perfect send off for Michael Nzei on his senior day. As he has throughout his career, Nzei provided the Pirates with timely rebounds and clutch free throws down the stretch to end his time playing at the Prudential Center on a high note.
“I’ll miss everything about Michael,” Willard said. “He’s been with me five years. We were laughing about it last night, he only got in trouble with me once in five years. That’s like a miracle. He has represented this program, he does not get enough credit. He’s just as big of a part as Isaiah [Whitehead], Khadeen [Carrington], Desi [Rodriguez], Angel [Delgado] and Ish [Sanogo]. He was huge. When he came back, it gave me confidence that someone’s going to pass down the baton. He’s a guy who takes a lot of pride in how he does things and what this program means.”
Before Seton Hall focuses on what seed it might be in the NCAA Tournament or who its opponent will be, the Pirates will be worried about bringing a Big East title back to South Orange. With the depth of the league and Seton Hall’s first-round opponent yet to be determined, it will not be an easy task. However, with the way this season has gone, there’s no doubt that the Pirates will show up and give it their all at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
“Every chance you have to play in the Big East Tournament is special,” Willard said. “Our main focus now is 100 percent winning a Big East championship.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.