JACKSONVILLE – The Seton Hall men’s basketball team was fueled by naysayers this season, and a full tank of pent-up acrimony took the Pirates to VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena last Thursday.
And then it ended, in ill-fitting, anticlimactic fashion. After a four-month regular season filled with jubilation and volatility, a non-conference gauntlet and Big East rollercoaster, the Pirates’ tournament was over in two hours.
Seton Hall reaching the Big East Tournament championship seemed like a sequel to 2016, when the Pirates knocked off Villanova and cut down Madison Square Garden nets for the first time since 1993. In many ways, it was, but for the ending.
Again, it was a two-point result, and again, a desperation three did not fall in the final seconds. The final shot felt similar in many ways: a missed three in front of the bench, the opposition skipping away in glee. Last time, it was Ryan Arcidiacono. This time, it was Myles Powell.
“We had a good opportunity to make history tonight,” a somber Powell said after the loss. “So, I mean, we’re definitely hurting from it. Everybody compared us to the 2016 team, and we just wanted to match their legacy. So, I mean, when you come up short like that, it kind of hurts.”
Seton Hall was forced to turn the page that Saturday, without the confetti-catching, net-cutting and trophy-hoisting to reward a three-day run in the Big East Tournament. For all its glory, the high of winning in 2016 was believed to have played a negative part in the first-round exit that followed.
The emptiness from losing at the same stage was going to be channeled and used as motivation. If doubts from pre-season could propel the Pirates to Jacksonville, it was fair to dream about what this level of bitterness and disappointment could do.
Ultimately, though, the Pirates 2016 and 2019 NCAA Tournament cameo played out almost identically. Again, short on luck, the Pirates were paired with a mid-major whose talent surpassed its seed. In 2016, it was 11-seed Gonzaga (21st in KenPom) In 2019, 7-seed Wofford (18th in KenPom).
Both were late Thursday tips and in both games Seton Hall fell behind by 10 at the half. In 2016, Whitehead wilted in the high altitude, shooting 4-for-24 and 0-for-10 from three. Powell was heading toward a similar night, with only four points in the first half, but the junior from Trenton erupted for 23 in the second half.
So, last Thursday was not an exact replica of three years ago. The black and gold electric wave of Wofford fans outnumbered the smaller patch of Seton Hall blue among the 13,495. The shockwave of noise after every one of the Terriers’ 13 three-pointers reiterated the numerical advantage.
Powell did his utmost to quiet them with his quintessential reliability in the clutch. He did not allow a poor start to bury his spirit. He continued to take smart shots, driving instead of forcing threes. His first three of the night rimmed out unfavorably and started his first-half spiral.
To start the second half, he charged to the basket with reckless abandon, absorbed a foul and finished. He began to trend online, the national spotlight briefly shifting toward the much-deserved junior as he pulled his teammates from elimination to a slim advantage.
Then the fuel ran out, once and for all. Seton Hall had survived two concentrated Wofford barrages, in which the Terriers had stretched the lead to a gaudy double-digit margin. This time, it was too much.
After Powell missed one of his free throws to tie the game, Nathan Hoover got space off a screen and flew in a three. Then he curled toward the corner and drained another. Fletcher Magee copied him, brushed off a different screen and made a line-drive three. In a flash, Wofford was back up by 10.
Wofford had struggled when Seton Hall turned up its full-court press, but when allowed to set up its ruthless half-court set, the Terriers were undeniably superior.
Jared Rhoden provided his signature spark off the bench with nine points, exuding his moxie and maturity. But showing both sides of the learning curve, Willard lashed out at him after Hoover got open on one of his three-pointers. The freshman sat after that point.
Soon Powell joined him, as the proverbial white flag was raised. Also, Mike Nzei, the lone senior on the team.
A year ago, Kevin Willard feared Nzei would forgo his final year of collegiate eligibility to jumpstart a career on Wall Street. Instead, with a promising trade ahead of him, the redshirt senior commanded the huddle out of halftime, giving one last impassioned message before the second half tip.
“I never wanted this to come to an end,” Nzei said at the podium following the loss. … “I felt like we came out today, we gave all we could and it didn’t go our way. But, we just got to keep our head up, there’s always more road on this journey.”
The Pirates ultimately lost by 16, the same margin as three years ago against Gonzaga in Denver. And just as in 2016, the storyline this spring will surround the biggest man on campus; then, Whitehead, now, Powell.
The fear is mild that the 6-foot-2 shooting guard will declare for the NBA Draft, but paranoia will spread regardless throughout South Orange between now and then. The double-edged sword to Powell being so disciplined and well-mannered is that an NBA team could easily fall in love with his personality and work ethic.
If Powell returns, the Pirates promise to be a force. They likely won’t be able to feed off of naysayers anymore, but they will no doubt find some new form of inspiration. And, on Powell, his intentions seemed pretty clear following the season-ending loss.
“I don’t plan on leaving.”
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.