Seton Hall kicked off what is supposed to be a season to remember by not only emerging victoriously, but making a little bit of history in the process on Tuesday night.
The Pirates took the floor against Wagner in front of a packed house at Walsh Gymnasium and defeated the Seahawks by a final score of 105-71, The 105 points was the most for a Seton Hall men’s basketball season opener since 1977, the first game in which the program put up over 100 points since December 2010 against UMass and the most of any game played under coach Kevin Willard. However, even though the win will not be credited to him, it was assistant coach Grant Billmeier taking the reins for the night, as Willard served the second game of a two-game suspension.
“Coach Grant is a great guy on and off the court,” Myles Powell told reporters after the game. “Just like Coach Willard trusts him, we trust him. He’s been with [Willard] a very long time and everything [Willard] wanted done, Coach Grant did. There were no let downs, and we all love Coach Grant. I think he did a great job in his first time.”
Powell lead the team in scoring on the night with 27, going 4-9 from beyond the arc and 7-13 overall from the field. Quincy McKnight and Anthony Nelson provided a combined 13 assists to kickstart their seasons while Tyrese Samuel provided six rebounds in his official debut for Seton Hall. Alex Morales led Wagner with 17 points and five assists.
Sandro Mamukelashvili got the Pirates rolling with their first points of the night after collecting a rebound to sink a close-range jump shot. Wagner struggled to find its groove early in the first half, missing its first three attempts from the field before Tyrone Nesby IV provided the breakthrough. The Pirates’ suffocating press forced a turnover in their half that opened the opportunity for McKnight to get on the scoresheet. McKnight and Jared Rhoden then doubled down in Wagner’s half to force another turnover and win a foul.
As the game progressed, a bombardment of fouls from either side began to slow the tempo of the game, which allowed Wagner to find somewhat of a foothold for most of the first half.
Ike Obiagu had a strong performance on both ends of the floor, putting up 11 points, collecting four rebounds and blocking three shots. As Nesby’s presence faded towards the end of the first half, Obiagu provided his side with much needed defensive solidarity as Wagner looked to create more opportunities in the paint. He put the crowd on its feet when he came up with a huge block on Chase Freeman’s attempted dunk in the final five minutes of the first half.
“We kind of knew they weren’t going to come here and lay down,” Obiagu said. “They did a pretty good job, so we have to give credit to them. They played hard. We knew they were going to come out, play scrappy and not give up any baskets, so we just have to give them credit for how hard they played in the first half. We just have to give ourselves credit for playing through it and creating that separation in the second half.”
After missing all of last season, Obiagu expressed his happiness for finally being able to get back on the court saying, “It was kind of boring [sitting last season]. I think I just took advantage of that and worked on my game. I was definitely excited to get back out there.”
Seton Hall closed out the half making four straight shots from the field and securing a 52-37 lead over the Seahawks.
The beginning of the second half was a back-and-forth affair as both sides looked to rediscover their mojo after the break, but Rhoden came out hot for the Pirates and finished with 12 points and four rebounds in just under 20 minutes of action. Samuel also sunk his first points as a Pirate with a stellar dunk off a selfless pass from McKnight late in the half.
Defensively, there were clear signs of early-season rust on the Pirates. Billmeier was not afraid to touch upon the need to focus on improving that side of the team’s style of play, but he took it in stride as part of the learning curve of being a head coach.
“The only way you can become a head coach and learn how to become a head coach is to actually go through it,” Billmeier said. It was an unbelievable experience for me. I’m glad I got to go through it, and I felt our staff was really connecting. Our players did a really good job today, and I don’t think they showed any signs of a drop-off.”
Seton Hall will be back in action for their second non-conference matchup of the season against Stony Brook at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday in Walsh Gymnasium.
Justin Sousa can be reached at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.