Seton Hall’s first Big East Tournament title: An Oral history of a program-defining moment

On April 3, 1989, the Seton Hall men’s basketball team played in their first and only NCAA national championship game at the Kingdome in Seattle. The Pirates were without a regular season or conference tournament title to their name in those days, but program legends like John Morton, Daryll Walker and Ramón Ramos were playing the best basketball of their careers to get the team to the pinnacle of college basketball games that season.

It was a back-and-forth championship game between Seton Hall and Michigan. Neither side had ever won a national championship before, but the Wolverines had 12 regular season titles, an NIT Tournament title and two prior appearances in the national championship under their belt. The Pirates pushed the game to overtime, but their best efforts fell short, 80-79, after a controversial foul call gave Michigan two free throws in the final seconds.

The 1989-90 season was the story of how that depleted team would bounce back from such an emotional loss. Seton Hall lost six players from that 1988-89 team through graduation and relied heavily on the offensive production of a sophomore Anthony Avent and freshman Terry Dehere and the creativity of junior transfer Oliver Taylor. It was a difficult transitional period for the then head coach PJ Carlesimo to push his team through as their end-of-season record declined from 30-7 to 11-16 in the span of a year.

That season was a baptism of fire for Carlesimo and his young team, but it provided their young core with valuable moments against some of the best competition in college basketball. Dehere and Avent returned with another year of experience under their belts, Taylor found his groove in the team as their primary chance creator, Jerry Walker was returning from an injury that kept him out the year prior and freshman Arturas Karnishovas was hungry for his chance to prove his capabilities at this level.

Carlesimo and the team expected a significant response to their seventh place finish the year prior. They knew an NCAA Tournament berth was in their grasp but not many people would have put them as favorites to claim their first conference tournament title that season. However, on Mar. 10, 1991, the Pirates would go on to beat Georgetown in the Big East Tournament championship game and claim the program’s first-ever title.

To commemorate the 30-year anniversary of this milestone, The Setonian interviewed players and coaches from that title-winning team. This will be a multi-part series released throughout the current season with each part being released on the anniversary of a game from that 1990-91 season schedule. All persons listed below are attributed their job title or position from Mar. 23, 1991.

Photo via SHU Atheltics

Fresh off a season that ended in a first-round Big East Tournament exit to No. 8 UConn, Seton Hall men’s basketball head coach PJ Carlesimo was raring to get back on the court with his team. Despite the poor results that plagued their 1989-90 season, the Pirates showed that their young squad held immense talent just waiting to be unlocked in the right conditions. With another year under the returning players’ belts and an impressive class of freshman coming in to bolster the roster, the 1990-91 season presented a blank aisle for Seton Hall to paint a better picture.

The Seton Hall men’s basketball team finished the 1989-90 Big East regular season in seventh place and were knocked out of the first round of the Big East Tournament. Just a year earlier, Carlesimo coached the team through a historic run to the NCAA Tournament final where the team lost to the University of Michigan in overtime. While the seniors of that tournament team graduated out of their college eligibility at the end of the season, a young Pirates side were baptized by fire the following season as they adjusted to life without their upperclassmen.

Led by future NBA players Anthony Avent and Terry Dehere, there was an expectation that Seton Hall would bounce back during the 1990-91 season well enough to claim another berth in the NCAA Tournament. What many did not expect was that they would do so lifting the Big East Tournament trophy for the very first time in program history.

To commemorate the 30-year anniversary of the men’s basketball program’s first Big East championship victory, The Setonian interviewed players and coaches from that title-winning team for a multi-part series taking readers through the historic season. Each part of the series will be released on the anniversary of a game from that 1990-91 season schedule. All persons listed below are attributed their job title or position from Mar. 10, 1991. Some of the below quotes have been edited for clarity. 

P.J. Carlesimo (head coach, Seton Hall): We went into the year very confident because we had played the young guys in 1989-90. We got our heads knocked off a couple times, but we had some very good wins in the league for a young team. It was typical Big East, you’d go into one week feeling great and then get beat by 20 on the road the next.

Bruce Hamburger (assistant coach, Seton Hall): We knew who we were, and we had a style. We were going to guard; we were going to be tough and we were going to get better. I think we all thought we were moving forward and had a young group that was going to become the next group of great Seton Hall players.

Patrick Elliott (assistant coach, Seton Hall): Anthony Avent, Terry Dehere, Oliver Taylor and all those guys had gone through the rigors of a full season in the Big East. That second year was a time where a lot of these players kept improving and kept getting better as we became a very good defensive team as the year went on.

Jerry Walker (forward, Seton Hall): I had sat out my freshman year, so I was anxious to get back on the court to play. I fractured my wrist in an inter-squad game blocking Anthony Avent’s shot, and I wasn’t sitting out again so I played the whole game with a fractured wrist.

Elliott: Someone like Jerry Walker was a born leader. He could get animated and get on guys if he didn’t think they were working really hard. Anthony was on the final four team and a strong leader for that team too. He showed his leadership on the court every game in the way he played. 

Carlesimo: Anthony was clearly the leader of that team. He was a major contributor for the Final Four team, and this was his third year playing a major role. Oliver was a great recruit, and he was just excellent. Terry Dehere had established even as a freshman that he was going to be a special player the year before.

Phot via SHU Athletics

Before the start of Big East, Seton Hall scheduled four non-conference games that included a pair of home games against Iona and Long Island University, an away game against Carlesimo’s alma mater, Fordham, and the annual Big East-ACC Challenge game against Clemson at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.

Hamburger: There were so many good programs within a 45-minute radius, so we didn’t need to run all over the country. We could help these programs, we knew all the coaches, we had great relationships and they were friends of ours, and we knew these games would help prepare us for conference play because we were going to see different styles of play.

Elliott: We played these traditional games every year against Iona, Fordham, Saint Peter’s and Rutgers. The reporters and the coaches would have a weekly lunch-in, and I think there was a lot more camaraderie then. There weren’t a lot of preseason tournaments, and you really relied on local games that became rivalries from that perspective.

Carlesimo: We played Fordham and Saint Peter’s almost every year, and the next group after that was Iona, Columbia and Princeton. Particularly before the Big East, Saint Peter’s was a true rival back in those days along with Rutgers.

Elliott: I remember going out to Fordham, and their gym was extraordinarily loud and packed. It was a tough loss in the last minute of the game. What you really had there, though, was the opportunity to play under those conditions. When you play on the road in the Big East, that type of environment is every team. We couldn’t take for granted that we could go anywhere and that our talent or the name on our jersey would get us over the finish line if we didn’t concentrate.

Hamburger: P.J. gave me all the responsibility for the scouting reports. Once or twice a week, I would be on the road traveling to watch teams in person and get the video together. Kerry Keating was our student video coordinator and would edit the clips that I wanted, and we were one of the first schools in the country that had a computerized editing system.

Elliott: Bruce would put together these complex and very thorough scouting reports on our opponents. That was the foundation of our teams back then. We knew everything they were going to run offensively and all their out-of-bounds plays. We sometimes knew the other team’s plays better than they did, and we became a good defensive team.

Carlesimo: You didn’t want to go crazy with the schedule because at that point there were nine teams and you played 16 games. You didn’t have to worry about strength of schedule because you played quality games against ranked opponents. It was also the second year we played in the Big East-ACC Challenge.

Walker: It was a cool atmosphere because we had the Syracuse fans cheering for us because it was all about the Big East at that time. It was good to have the Syracuse fans and our own fans cheering for our success on the court.

Elliott: It wasn’t your normal game up in the Dome because there were probably more people cheering for the Big East, so it made for a friendlier atmosphere. That was the first time Seton Hall had ever won in that building. It wasn’t against Syracuse, but it was the first time we’d won in it. That was a good Clemson team and we walked away feeling good about ourselves.

Photo via SHU Athletics

Seton Hall beat Clemson 78-62 that season. Despite a one-point loss to Fordham at the Rose Hill Gym, the Pirates were heading into their Big East opener against Villanova playing well with a 3-1 record. The Wildcats were also heading into this game having beat Wake Forest in their ACC-Big East Challenge game and No. 14 Louisiana State in their season opener.

Hamburger: It was almost ridiculous how good the Big East was back then. As a player and as a coach, you had to be ready every single night. The margin of victory and that window of opportunity to win was so small.

Elliott: The Big East is the Big East, and it’s special. Back then it was a little interesting because it was still really those foundational years of the Big East. We’re going down to Villanova towards the end of 1990, and five or six years before they won a national championship. But two years before that, Seton Hall were losing the national championship final by one in overtime. These were programs in the national spotlight. Anytime you walked into a Big East arena, it was just incredible given the tradition and stories behind the traditions of the programs. You knew if you were unprepared and not ready to play with your best effort, it was going to be tough.

Carlesimo: The first Big East game was always big, significantly so when it was on the road because road wins were hard to come by. Winning on the road was always significant, and beating Villanova, regardless of how good or bad they were, was always significant too.

Walker: We were always excited to get started in the Big East because that’s what we signed up for. You never took anything for granted in a Big East game because anybody could lose on any given night. You could be tenth in the conference and still beat whoever’s number one that night.

Hamburger: Villanova were always a skilled team with offensive players who could shoot well and play 50 different defenses, zones, presses and ways to play man-to-man. As the assistant who did the scouting, I had to be sharp in helping the guys on the court by calling out what certain signals mean. Villanova was a very structured team.

Carlesimo: The four power teams during my time at Seton Hall were traditionally Syracuse, Georgetown, and Villanova because they had won national championships. St. John’s was always good too. Villanova was a big rival because of them being so close and the number of Villanova alum that lived in the New Jersey area. It was never just another game.

Elliott: The Pavilion was always loud, but the key was to focus. We had demanding practices that were always long and prepared us for what our opponents were going to do. But we had some guys who would feed off the opposing fans like Terry Dehere and Jerry Walker, and they also just got down to business to execute offensively and defensively.

Hamburger: It had such a closeness to where people were on top of you and it was sold out. The student section was packed every night and even when I went there scouting, you left exhausted because it was just so loud. I always thought that was one of the cooler buildings in the conference. Every possession towards the end of that game was a battle.

Carlesimo: It was a small gym for the Big East. Most of the games by that time were played in the NBA arenas. But when you had to go onto somebody’s campus, it was even more difficult. Villanova was always a tough game and playing them at the Pavillion  was much tougher than playing them anywhere else.

Hamburger: These kids all knew each other from AAU teams and AAU tournaments, and there was this connection that everyone had. It added to the mystique of the Big East back then, especially with us being on TV so much. Guys weren’t household names, but they almost were because we were on TV Sunday and Monday nights.

Carlesimo: Rollie Massimino had been a friend for a long, long time, and he was an incredible competitor. Rollie didn’t lose very well at all, though.

Elliott: All of the coaches in the Big East knew that they were stronger together than as individuals for the league to gain a national standing. I couldn’t tell you the amount of times we would travel into the city of the team we were playing the next day, and the opposing coach would meet us for dinner.

Walker: P.J. always took us to the best restaurants. I got exposure to all this great food, and I still think about some of that food to this day. I remember being up in Syracuse and we had just lost to them, but I remember looking down the table and seeing Jim Boeheim and thinking ‘What’s he doing here?’

Four Seton Hall players hit double digit points that night against Villanova with Taylor and Dehere leading the way with 18 points each. They started the Big East season with a big away win over one of the powerhouses of the conference, and it set the mood perfectly for the next game. 10 days after the Pirates’ win over the Wildcats, they would play Rutgers at the Brendan Byrne Arena – now the Meadowlands – in the biggest college basketball rivalry in New Jersey.

Walker: Being an in-state rivalry, we always wanted to beat Rutgers for bragging rights. Some of the local games were intense because we’d either played with each other or against each other in the AAU circuit. We’d be talking trash and it was intense, but it was always pretty cool.

Carlesimo: Rutgers was the significant game for us. Winning that game was always significant. There was a time where we had turned the corner as a program, but there had been times earlier where they were better than us. It’s gone back and forth over the years, but it’s always the biggest non-conference game of the year.

Hamburger: One of P.J.’s biggest strengths as a coach was treating every game — whether it be the national championship against Michigan or a non-conference game against Bridgeport — the same in terms of preparation and routine. This was the most important game of the year because it was the next game, and that’s how we approached the way we did things.

Elliott: Going into that game, we knew that the crowd was going to be loud. When we were shooting free throws in practice the day before, we were trying to simulate a bit of the noise to break the guys’ concentration. Down the stretch, Terry had gotten fouled and was shooting towards a crowd of Rutgers fans. He made both of his free throws and on his way back coming into the timeout, he said that it was so loud that he couldn’t hear the ball bounce.

Carlesimo: Playing at the Meadowlands was more of an advantage, but it was a mixed crowd. You also had the rivalry between the Big East and the Atlantic 10, but it was more for the history of how competitive it had been over the years. Leagues were still relatively new and before there were leagues, this was the biggest game on the schedule for both teams.

Hamburger: One of our goals throughout the season was always to go undefeated in the non-conference schedule against the schools from New York and New Jersey. Whoever it may be and however many games, we wanted to go undefeated in those games and we should have gone undefeated in those games because we were a high-profile program.

Carlesimo: You had a lot of Jersey guys on both teams who grew up with that rivalry even when they were in grammar school. Terry and Jerry knew it, and so did some of the guys they played with that were at Rutgers. The rivalry meant more to our alums, the coaches and the Jersey players because they had a sense of the tradition behind the game.

Walker: I remember being up late watching TV trying to sleep, but all I could think about was this game. It’s an in-state rivalry, it’s for bragging rights, so I put extra pressure on myself so that we’d do well against teams like Rutgers.

Hamburger: They were always a good offensive team that could score, but they weren’t anything crazy defensively. They had some guys who at one point were on our recruiting list and we were familiar with, so there was always a high level of mutual respect between the high-profile programs in the state.

Elliott: It’s an in-state game. It’s the other big New Jersey school. But it was Rutgers, and there’s a lot of pride. All the players knew each other, so there was that kind of competitiveness between friends and people they knew. We averaged about 14,000 people at the games too.

Hamburger: I just remember going into the game thinking we had to play because it was a good team, but my recollection is that we played well. Not that we looked ahead a lot, but that game showed that we were good because we played well. It was a good look ahead at when we got into conference play. You could just see that the pieces of the puzzle fit.

Seton Hall beat Rutgers by 14 points, 90-76, and extended their win streak to four games that night. The bragging rights for the best program in New Jersey were theirs that season, and it set the tone for how Carlesimo’s team would battle their way through the Big East that season. They won their next two games against North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Winthrop to wrap up 1990. The real grind through the Big East regular season had only just begun, and it would continue in their Big East home-opener against Providence on Jan. 2.

Justin Sousa can be reached at justin.sousa@student.shu.edu. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.

Author: Justin Sousa

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