Two years ago, Rutgers ended the 2017 Garden State Hardwood Classic on a 17-2 run to stun Seton Hall with a loss. This year, the Scarlet Knights picked up right where they left off, starting the game on a 19-3 run en route to a 68-48 blowout of the Pirates.
On top of the bruise to Seton Hall’s ego, the team also lost Preseason All-American Myles Powell for the entire second half due to being evaluated for a head injury. In a raucous Rutgers Athletic Center, of which the court was flooded with students after the victory, Seton Hall’s depth was simply not enough to overcome a 13-point deficit at the break. Other than Quincy McKnight, no Pirates scorer had more than eight points in the game.
“[Powell] has a pretty bad concussion,” head coach Kevin Willard said. “He took the charge and whacked his head on the floor, and then him and Tyrese [Samuel] ran into each other. He asked me during the game, ‘Why are we practicing at Rutgers?’ I kind of looked at him, because I didn’t see him get hit by Tyrese, because I was wondering what the heck he was doing out there. We sat down at the timeout and his eyes kind of rolled into the back of his head.”
For a battle-tested Pirates squad, who stayed mostly intact from last season through a tough schedule and started this season with few walks in the park, they were simply not ready for the Rutgers onslaught to begin the game. Ike Obiagu, who received the start over Romaro Gill, and the guards got caught on a few quick screens at the start which led to two Rutgers alley-oops, much to the approval of the crowd.
“I didn’t do a very good job getting these guys ready for this atmosphere,” Willard said. “The only ones who had really had played in this atmosphere before were Myles Powell and Myles Cale, and Sandro [Mamukelashvili] played a little bit. We talked about it a little bit, I didn’t want to kind of get them thinking about it, but I didn’t do a good enough job to get them to understand what this game and what this atmosphere is like. I’ve been here 13 times. I should have done a better job.”
The trend continued as nothing fell for Seton Hall throughout the first half as Rutgers jumped on every opportunity that it could get. The Pirates only got on the board six minutes into the half, as Anthony Nelson banked in a three.
Aside from a few Powell drives, Seton Hall had little to no offense running in the first half. With a noticeable lack of offensive sets, the Pirates were forced into isolation on far too many occasions – the result being a 1-for-15 shot rate through nine minutes of play.
In the second half, things did not get any better. Without Powell and the injured Sandro Mamukelashvili, McKnight and Shavar Reynolds became the primary shot takers with Myles Cale continuing to be timid.
“Coming out of halftime without Myles, it was kind of tough for us,” McKnight said. “That 13-point lead, for us, you’ve seen us with last year a lot come back – second half, first half – we had a fresh 20 minutes. It’s just tough. This atmosphere, they came out and threw the first punch and had us on our heels the whole game basically.”
After starting the second half even at 11-11, the Scarlet Knights went on a nearly three minute scoring drought, but Seton Hall could not take advantage enough to make a dent before Rutgers eventually heated up again. The Scarlet Knights did a more than amicable job defending the Pirates, especially without their top players.
With Powell and Mamukelashvili out, the duo of Cale and Rhoden had their chance to shine but simply did not get the job done, just like the rest of the team. Samuel, who played 21 minutes and knocked in three points on 1-for-6 shooting, struggled throughout the game on the biggest stage of his career. Samuel was visibly frustrated on the bench after a string of turnovers in this first half but calmed down as the game went on.
Regardless, Willard has not wavered on his team and the difficult road that he set them out to take on. Still, though, he understands the implications ahead and what needs to be fixed.
“I still have the same amount of confidence in this team as I did three months ago, two months ago, last month when we lost to Michigan State,” Willard said. “I’ve got to figure out the four spot, because more than anything that’s really hurting us right now.”
Moving forward, the Pirates will undoubtedly drop out of the AP Top 25 when the new poll is released on Dec. 16. After losing by double digits in Iowa State, the Pirates had already dropped low enough to ensure no ranking with a loss to their in-state rivals.
Depending on the health of Powell, another opportunity lays ahead for Seton Hall against Maryland on Dec. 19 to pick up a signature win.
Kevin Kopf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @KevinKopfHWH.