It had been a while since Seton Hall put together a dominant first 20 minutes of basketball.
Sluggish starts have plagued the Pirates the last two weeks. It cost them games against Creighton and Providence last week and nearly cost them another one against No. 21 Butler earlier this week. On Sunday afternoon against St. John’s, though, Seton Hall turned in the first half performance that everyone has been waiting for.
Thank to efficient play on offense and a lock down effort defensively, the Pirates jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, defeating St. John’s by a final score of 81-65.
“I was really happy with the fact that we came out with a good defensive mindset today,” coach Kevin Willard said. “I thought that set our tone.
Defensively, the way we came out, that was the biggest thing with these guys. We’ve been defending, we’ve just been digging ourselves a hole because we haven’t been playing overly well offensively here. We got five straight stops early and I thought that kind of relaxed us. We were able to get a layup, Ro got a dunk, Sandro made a really great ball fake and a kick out and I think Anthony Nelson made a great kick out to Q.”
The win is Seton Hall’s 20th, making Kevin Willard the first coach in New Jersey Division I Men’s Basketball history to lead his program to five consecutive 20-win seasons.
“Myles Powell is a hell of a player,” Willard said. “Angel Delgado is really good. Isaiah Whitehead is really good. I’ve been blessed to have a lot of really, really good players here over the last six, seven years or however long I’ve been here. Especially the last five groups that have been with me and have worked really hard, I’ve been blessed with some great players.”
Seton Hall shot 43% from the field in the first half and made life extremely tough on St. John’s, limiting the Red Storm to a 9-37 (24%) clip from the field and 2-8 shooting from three. Sandro Mamukelashvili spearheaded Seton Hall’s first half efforts with 10 points, six rebounds and two assists. Jared Rhoden was active on both ends with six points and three rebounds, while Shavar Reynolds provided instant energy off the bench with a three from the corner and two steals.
“That was our goal coming in,” Mamukelashvili said of Seton Hall’s fast start. “We just wanted to get our 20th win. St. John’s is a good team. We wanted to run and get stops.”
Balance on the scoring sheet also played a major role in Seton Hall’s ability to complete a season sweep of St. John’s. Mamukelashvili (16), Rhoden (14), Myles Powell (18), Romaro Gill (12) and Myles Cale (10) all finished in double figures. Mamukelashvili nearly finished with a double-double with nine rebounds, while Gill added six boards. Both Powell and Cale finished with five rebounds of their own.
Powell had a rough first half with five points on 2-9 shooting, but opened the scoring for the Pirates with a drive to the basket. Mamukelashvili proceeded to score five of Seton Hall’s next seven points, giving Seton Hall a 9-4 lead at the under-16 timeout.
By the under-12 timeout, Seton Hall’s lead to ballooned to 16-6 with six Pirates having scored. A 13-2 run put Seton Hall in front 20-6 and prompted a St. John’s timeout at the nine-minute mark. Mike Anderson’s talk with his team did not do much to right the Johnnie’s offensive wrongs, though, as St. John’s continued to struggle to find the bottom of the net. At one point, the Red Storm were shooting 3-20 from the field with only three players having scored.
St. John’s started to hit some shots towards the end of the first half, but Seton Hall maintained a double-digit lead as the first 20 minutes of action wound down. St. John’s cut Seton Hall’s lead to 30-20, but the Pirates responded with a 6-2 spurt to end the half with a 36-22 lead.
“Being up 14 at half was like being up by 30,” Willard said. “It was just a different feeling. We haven’t had that in a while.”
St. John’s came out of the locker room looking like a new team offensively. The Red Storm cut Seton Hall’s lead to 38-31 in the opening minutes of the second half, but the Pirates quickly answered back and a three from Rhoden pushed their lead back to double digits by the under-16 timeout.
Seton Hall proceeded to dominate the next four minutes with a series of alley-oops to Romaro Gill, an and-one from Powell and a stout defensive effort to push its lead to 55-39. Another alley-oop, this one to Mamukelashvili at the 5:39 mark prompted another St. John’s timeout and effectively served as the final dagger, putting Seton Hall up by a comfortable 16-point margin. Two free throws from Powell just before the under-four timeout put Seton Hall up by 21 and before long, the Pirates had their biggest lead of the game at 77-54.
“It was a significant [win],” Mamukelashvili said. “After we lost to Providence, there were a lot of guys who were frustrated and coach was really upset. We just needed this win to get back on track and show everyone we can do it. We come everyday and work hard.”
With St. John’s in the rear view mirror, Seton Hall will now have to gear up for the toughest part of its Big East schedule. The Pirates’ first test will come on the road against No. 19 Marquette next Saturday. Seton Hall has not defeated the Golden Eagles on their home court since the 2015-16 season.
-Message received after Kevin Willard called out his team following its loss at Providence last weekend. The Pirates finish this week 2-0 and trending in the right direction heading into the stretch run of Big East play.
“I think there’s times in a season where you have to get on your team and you have to know your team and when to get on them,” Willard says. “Nobody knows them better than me. I wasn’t worried about how they would respond. I saw it Monday in practice after I got on them.
They responded great. I knew we had a great shot to win today because we practiced for two and a half hours yesterday — much longer than we usually do the day before a game. Individually they’ve all bounced back, but as a team, they’ve understood what their mentality has to be at this time of year.”
-Seton Hall’s first half performance was impressive, but the manner in which the Pirates were able to get the job done is what really matters. Myles Powell struggled, yet Seton Hall was still able to build up a double-digit lead thanks to contributions from other players. It’s known that this team can function without Powell lighting it up, but Sunday afternoon was the first time Seton Hall was really able to thrive offensively without its star leading in the scoring column.
-Kevin Willard’s diagnosis of Myles Powell’s recent jump shot struggles: “I think the concussion, after the concussion, that can take some time to get your motor skills a little bit going. Obviously he’s 100% recovered from it, but I think there are some lingering effects with technique and form.”
-It has been once and it will probably be said many more times before the season ends. Seton Hall is a different team when Sandro Mamukelashvili is on his A-game. Seton Hall’s first half doesn’t look quite as good if Mamukelashvili wasn’t scoring from everywhere on the floor.
“I think he’s now in a pretty good mental state where he’s ready to attack and be aggressive,” Willard said of his junior power forward.
-Jared Rhoden’s ability to knock down threes from the wing gives Seton Hall’s offense a much-needed boost. Rhoden’s shot was off throughout most of his freshman year and the first half of this season. Now that he has it back, teams can no longer sag off him.
-Shavar Reynolds is instant energy off the bench. He picked up two steals in his first two minutes of action and knocked down a corner three a couple of minutes later. You cannot understate his value at this point.
-St. John’s was Seton Hall’s last “easy” Big East game. Now, it’s onto a three-game gauntlet against Marquette on the road, Villanova at home and Creighton on the road to close out conference play. If Seton Hall can get the job done against two of the elite teams of the Big East and a Marquette squad that is extremely tough at home, it will emerge as regular season champions for the first time since 1993. If there is any team that can accomplish that feat, it’s this one.
“There’s no hiding anymore,” Willard said. “What we have in front of us, we have Marquette and Markus [Howard]’s senior night, we come home and have our senior night against Nova, who is as good as anyone in the country, and then we have Creighton, at Creighton for their senior night. I don’t think there is anyone in the country playing better than Creighton right now.
“That way I’m looking at it is we have three great opportunities to solidify where we’ll be seeded in the NCAA Tournament. It gives us a chance to win a Big East Championship. It also gives us a chance to get a good seed in the Big East Tournament, so it’s three great opportunities.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.