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

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. 

After a 7-1 start to the season, Seton Hall was heading into the new year in good form. With most of their non-conference games out of the way, the Pirates had their full attention on the Big East and the tough schedule that awaited them.

On Jan. 2, 1991, the Seton Hall men’s basketball team played their first Big East home game of the season against Providence. It had been exactly a month since they played their Big East opener at Villanova, and PJ Carlesimo’s team wanted to start the conference season strong with a 2-0 record.

After the Friars was a three-game stretch against teams all ranked within the top 15. Three days after the Providence game, the Pirates traveled to the Capital Centre to play the dogged, John Thompson-coached No. 15 Georgetown in a game of two of the conference’s best defensive teams.

The following week included a two-game home stretch against metropolitan rivals No. 10 St. John’s and national powerhouse No. 8 Syracuse at the Brendan Byrne Arena. The Red Storm would provide a classic battle of the metropolitan powerhouses while Seton Hall’s meeting within Syracuse would be Carlesimo’s 18th attempt to beat them as head coach of the Pirates.

The Pirates would earn their first two appearances in the AP Top 25 in January as well, but their second game against Syracuse and a clash with No. 19 University of Connecticut would challenge the team’s ability to hang with the best of the best.

Photo via SHU Athletics

Seton Hall was on a six-game winning streak with wins over Clemson, Villanova and Rutgers going into this game against Providence. The Friars entered with a 9-2 overall record but with an 0-1 start to conference play after losing to Boston College back in December. With the game also coming during Seton Hall’s winter break, it was a big moment for the Pirates to give the fans in attendance a performance to get them even more excited for the season to come. Some of the below quotes have been edited for clarity.

Patrick Elliott (assistant coach, Seton Hall): When your games are spread out like that, you’re thankful you didn’t start the season 0-1 in the league because there’s nothing you can do about it for a while. We were happy to have started 1-0 against Villanova and were excited to play our first Big East game at home.

P.J. Carlesimo (head coach, Seton Hall): It was the first home conference game at the Meadowlands, and the difference between starting 2-0 and 1-1 was significant. You don’t want to dig a hole right out of the shoot. The other thing was that you often ran into games where you weren’t at school. Sure, Seton Hall had a lot of fans, but the atmosphere wasn’t the same when you’re playing out of school as opposed to when school is in session. Sometimes getting people to the building is a significant thing, and they would be more apt to going to those games if they thought you were good.

Elliott: They always played hard, and they were a good defensive team that put pressure on you. They looked to run at you if they could and had some good guards. Providence was always a tough team and when you’re looking at the Big East schedule, there are no easy games.

Carlesimo: Providence was good, and they had been good for a long time. Every Big East game had some level of rivalry to it, but Villanova, St. John’s and Providence were the closer ones. They were close enough to where you could get students or fans from both teams to the games. It was just a different level of rivalry as opposed to Pittsburgh or Georgetown, and they almost always had a player or two from New Jersey or New York, too.

Elliott: It was a very uncharacteristic game in that it was high scoring. Most games were in the mid-60s to low-70s, so to have that many possessions where both teams were in the 90s for points was very unlike most Big East games.

Bruce Hamburger (assistant coach, Seton Hall): Looking back on these games, the point differential was usually so close. It didn’t matter who you played, there weren’t a lot of blowouts in the league that time. Beating a team by 12 points was like winning a game now by 30. It lends itself to the idea that everything matters when you’re playing at such a high level.

The Pirates won 97-92 with season-highs in points from Terry Dehere (37 points) and Anthony Aventwith (28). With arguably their most difficult stretch of games ahead of them, Carlesimo and his team had at least given themselves the breathing room of a 2-0 record rather than starting with a win and a loss. Their next stretch of games was a triad of match ups against ranked opponents with an away trip to Georgetown to start followed by home games against St. John’s and Syracuse.

Photo via SHU Athletics

Hamburger: It’s what you sign up for playing in this conference. You just bounce from one to the next to the next to the next. That’s what made the league so good back then and made kids gravitate towards the conference.

Georgetown was arguably one of the highest profile programs in the country. Going in, you knew with their big men being Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning that nothing was going to be easy. They were probably the face of the Big East and college basketball back then.

Carlesimo: Georgetown was always the same. When you played Georgetown, it was going to be incredibly competitive. The first thing you had to do was match their aggression. John’s teams always played extremely hard, and that was literally the first thing to do when you played Georgetown. If you didn’t lace up and weren’t ready to battle for boards or handle a physically defensive team and play physically yourself, you were in trouble. They would dominate you.

Elliott: Georgetown was just a really solid defensive team. They’d play a great half-court defense with good big guys. It was always a very physical game against Georgetown, so when you look at that 73-65 score every one of those baskets for either team was contested. Mutombo was one of their greats, and they were all just good shot blockers. You couldn’t take it into the paint without taking on a lot of contact.

Carlesimo: They had a run of big guys that were excellent defensively, and the ones everyone remembers are Patrick Ewing, Dikembe and Alonzo. They were one of the best defensive teams in the country, and part of that came down to them having above average defensive centers. Dikembe was unique, and he was unique all throughout his career in the NBA too. He made it that hard to score in the lane, and it was difficult to rebound, get shots or even get points in the paint. Dikembe distorted games all throughout his career, and he improved every year.

Hamburger: From a basketball X’s and O’s standpoint, they were easy, and I say that in a good way. They were very cut and dry. They made simplistic plays and you always knew they were going inside out and playing through their big guys. You knew what you were getting from those guys with no surprises in their toughness and grit.

Carlesimo: John was a great competitor and a great friend. He was huge for African-American coaches being a staunch advocate for giving those guys chances as assistant coaches. The more successful he was, the more he used his platform to advocate for other coaches. He did not like when people said he was the first African-American coach to do this or that, but he was a trailblazer.

Elliott: Coach Thompson was one of the best coaches in the country. He was someone who was able to really craft and develop teams to play a very intense and hard-nosed game. I think when you’re sitting on the bench and looking over, though, sometimes you’re like ‘oh my god, that’s John Thompson.’ Somebody like him who transcended the Georgetown basketball program was iconic and so important to the game and the Big East.

Carlesimo: John and Lou Carnesecca, when you beat them, never had excuses. It wasn’t the referees, or they had some guy out or they were looking past you for a big game coming up, it was never that. First of all, when you beat Georgetown, you knew you had earned it. When you were lucky enough to beat Georgetown, John would give you credit.

The game did not go well  for Seton Hall. John Thompson’s Hoyas  handed the Pirates their first Big East loss of the season and second overall, holding Avent to just 12 points and keeping Dehere to just 21 points after his 37-point performance against Providence. The week ahead, however, left no time to think about the loss as No. 10 St. John’s and No. 8 Syracuse awaited. They opened these back-to-back home games against the Red Storm on Jan. 9 before rounding out this tough three-game stretch against a Syracuse team that were on a two-game losing streak heading into their first meeting of the season with the Pirates.

Carlesimo: St. John’s had been the dominant team in the metropolitan area. As we became better and better, that was the team we were trying to compete with. Certainly, to compete with from a recruiting standpoint and to be the best program in the area. St. John’s had been the king pin for a long time, so it’s hard to overstate the rivalry. What I said about Providence and Villanova about getting fans to the games is multiplied by 10 for this game. Whether we played them at the Garden or Meadowlands, there were going to be a lot of St. John’s fans at the games.

Elliott: St. John’s was just a very solid team, and we played similarly to them at times. Again, another great half-court defense team that ran a secondary break and would get into some offensive sets. They were coached by another great in Lou Carnesecca and had guys like Malik Sealy and Shawnelle Scott who were a cut above and could really play.

Carlesimo: It was a huge win, especially because that win stays with you until the next time you play them. From a recruiting standpoint, you’re going into gyms and people know about the outcome of the game. It was also a game that would send a message to the rest of the league, frankly, with us going 3-0 to start.

Hamburger: At that time, we were obviously the two biggest teams in the metropolitan area and probably the two most successful teams. There was a different significance when we played St. John’s. A lot of it came down to the history and tradition of the program.

Carlesimo: That’s also us starting to show that we can be an NCAA team. We can be a team that has a winning record in the league and do some damage in the Big East Tournament. Looking back, the recent success that Kevin Willard’s had is almost taken for granted. We’d only been to two NCAA Tournaments in the school’s history. It wasn’t like we were reaching our 20th tournament; we were only trying to get there for the third time in the school’s history. That was even more significant because of the young guys having a chance to establish something.

Hamburger: In the same sense as Georgetown, Syracuse had such a big national following. There was something different about the Carrier Dome with 30,000 people every night. The first time I walked in there, it was like a sensory overload with the size, the noise and the atmosphere of the place being so unique.

Carlesimo: We had not beaten Syracuse in I don’t know how many years. There had been a couple of games where we weren’t very good, and they whacked us. But there had also been several games like that one at the Meadowlands where it came down to one possession. We just found ways to lose to Syracuse. Don’t get me wrong, they were and still excellently coached, but there had been so many games like this one where we did everything but beat them.

Elliott: Syracuse was always comfortable with going on a run. You always knew at any time they could turn it up, turn you over, trap you and make you miss shots. Going into that game, we’ve always had this tough time getting Syracuse and it always seemed like they were good for a run late in the game when they changed up their defenses and looked to trap us on the wing.

Carlesimo: At that point, the players knew that we could be competitive. To play the way we did in those three games gave us confidence going forward. We knew that if we played at that level every game, we could win any game. You want to be in a situation where you know if you played as well as you could, you were going to win the game.

Elliott: I think we felt good after the St. John’s win, and the Syracuse game kind of validated that we could play with any other team in the country. To lose by two, I think we felt good about who we were. We didn’t celebrate, though. There may have been some whispers, but we’re thinking about one thing and one thing only: Boston College. We knew that if we were going to meet our expectations, making the top 25 was where we needed to start.

Photo via SHU Athletics

Avent and Dehere combined for 39 points in Seton Hall’s 12-point win over St. John’s to bounce back from the loss to Georgetown. The Pirates had done well to ward off another one of Syracuse’s signature late-game runs, but, as luck would have it, Carlesimo’s bogey team to that point would come out on top once again and in heartbreaking fashion. With just seconds left in the game and Seton Hall up by one, Billy Owens chucked up a buzzer-beating three-point basket to maintain Cuse’s unbeaten run against the Carlesimo-led Pirates.

Despite rounding out that stretch 1-2, Seton Hall earned their first appearance in the AP Top 25 at No. 25 before their game against Boston College. Now ranked and up against one of the underdogs of the Big East, this game against the Terriers was a potential trap-game waiting for the Pirates to slip up.

Hamburger: Anytime that you’re ranked, it’s special. I don’t think it’s something you take for granted nor get excited about, but you feel happiest for the kids. As a coach, you’re plugged in a way where you’re happy for the alums and administrators who were loyal and stuck by you. Two years prior, we were playing in a national championship final, so it was more like ‘alright, this is how it’s supposed to be.’ That was the level of our program and where we were supposed to be.

Elliott: After the St. John’s and Syracuse games, I think we went into this game not wanting to have a let-up. You didn’t want to string another loss because you weren’t ready to play. They didn’t have the attendance that some other teams in our league had, so you have to go and be focused about that team. We got in and out of there as quickly as possible. There were just games like that where you did what you needed to do to get the win.

Hamburger: Boston College was kind of on track with Seton Hall: small college school in the metropolitan area. They had football and we didn’t, but they were well coached and had a toughness to them.

A lot of people talk about how Villanova plays with the four guards now, but BC would use four guards all the time. They were a tough matchup because they would always have really good guards and, in this season, they had Bill Curley as their big man. They were a little bit ahead of their time in that they were perimeter-oriented and more four out, one in. They did a really good job of spreading the court and spacing you out.

Carlesimo: Boston College was one of the original Big East schools, and they had a great tradition. They had a bunch of years where they were national ranked and consistently an NCAA team. BC always seemed to have great guards like Dominic Pressley and Michael Adams.

Hamburger: They didn’t draw well in terms of their fan base; football and hockey were their big sports. It was a different atmosphere from going to Providence, Villanova, or Pittsburgh where it was packed, loud and hot. You go to Boston College and it would be half filled. As a coach, you needed to make sure that your guys were ready to play mentally and that there wasn’t a loss of focus. You didn’t have a crowd to motivate you because it was a different atmosphere.

Carlesimo: They had three different buildings that were all a pain in the neck to play in. Roberts Center was the old one, kind of like when we used to play in the Walsh Gymnasium. Roberts had a synthetic floor; it wasn’t wood. It was a small gym, and it was just a nightmare to play in.

Elliott: From their perspective, they’re playing a Top 25 team, so that’s even more incentive for them to beat us. For us, we’ve got them sandwiched between a buzzer-beater loss to Syracuse and then the rematch back at the Carrier Dome. We had to focus, and we had to get that one.

Seton Hall got their win over Boston College, but their rematch against Syracuse would end with a much wider point gap as the Orange pulled away at the end.

Elliott: Going to Syracuse was just different from any other team in the Big East. It’s the only show in town, and there’d be 30,000 people in the building for every game. I understand now that people drive long distances just to watch the game. It’s almost a festival atmosphere for the fans, and the building itself is so unique the way it’s set up.

It was disappointing not to get that game after thinking that that was going to be the time that we finally got Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. As I remember that game, it was close for a while and then they went on their run as Syracuse always does.

The Pirates lost by 14. It was a tough pill to swallow, especially having now fallen out of the AP Top 25, but they had a week-long break before their next Big East game against No. 19 UConn. A tune-up game against Saint Peter’s was scheduled during that break, resulting in a close 67-62 win for Seton Hall, and it may have just given them the edge they needed to bounce back against another ranked opponent in their conference.

Elliott: This is when UConn basketball really started getting it going for themselves as an entire program. They had players like Scott Burrell, Chris Smith, Rod Sellers and Steve Pikiell through the years. They were a good team, and they just kept getting better as time went on. Jim Calhoun was obviously a great coach, and this was when Connecticut basketball started announcing itself to the Big East and the national stage.

Carlesimo: UConn was turning a corner like us. If you tracked UConn going from this point forward, they struggled early in the Big East just like us. Same thing with the buildings, they’d gone from playing in their field house to the Hartford Civic Center and then they built the Gampel Pavilion. Suddenly, all the teams started shifting to playing in NBA arenas.

Elliott: This is still the first game against Connecticut that season, but we were getting to that point in the year where those second games around are always interesting after the scouting is done. With Connecticut, it was one of those games where it was on our home court and they were a top 20 team, but we had to win that game for this to be one of those special years.

Elliott: When Coach Calhoun was there, they just had a toughness about them. I think the good teams take on their coach’s personality, and they were Jim Calhoun. They were tough, nasty and had an edge to them all in a competitive way. They obviously had phenomenal players in their program, but they were very simple and efficient in their play. Jim did a great job of isolating his best players and making sure they had the best shots. They would grind games out, so beating them by 14 is equivalent to beating someone by 25 today.

Elliott: This win helped build confidence within the team. We were getting towards the end of January and starting to play teams for the second time, so those games are typically tougher than the first time around. Teams know each other better and the stakes are much higher in February. Looking back on it, we won that game because we were at home, played well and got the job done. If we lost that game, it could’ve changed the season a little bit.

Their win over the Huskie would put them back in the AP Top 25, again at No. 25, and put their record at 5-3 in the Big East and 12-4 overall. With 20 wins being the benchmark to lockdown a place in the NCAA Tournament, Seton Hall had 10 games left in the regular season to get there along with the Big East Tournament.

Next on the schedule was a rematch with Providence at the Dunkin Donuts Center. The Pirates would then go on a five-game stretch against ranked opponents with one being a non-conference clash with No. 23 Oklahoma and both games against No. 19/23 Pittsburgh. The road to 20 wins was clear, but it would not be an easy hill to climb for Seton Hall. 

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

Author: Justin Sousa

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