College Senior Nights were always meant to be a special occasion for the student-athletes who devoted their college careers to their athletic program and school. Four-year Seton Hall veterans Sandro Mamukelashvili, Myles Cale and Shavar Reynolds and graduate transfer Bryce Aiken were always going to have their ceremonious send-off at the final home game of this season, but now it will happen in front of a 1,700-person crowd at the Prudential Center.
“I’ll be honest, I never thought we would have fans this year,” Mamukelashvili said. “I didn’t even think there would be a college season. Coming back, I was more scared about whether we would have games or would games even happen. I’m just proud of how everything is now and getting to have fans is just unbelievable. Who would’ve thought we’d get to this point?”
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out last March, Seton Hall had just gotten the opportunity to give Myles Powell, Quincy McKnight, Romaro Gill and Asiah Avent their due rewards for their services to the men’s basketball program. As it continued to rage on into the 2020-21 academic school year, however, it threatened to take that away from this year’s senior class.
It threatened to take away Mamukelashvili’s curtain call before he entered the NBA Draft. It threatened to rob Cale and Reynolds of the recognition their defensive contributions and key offensive moments over the years deserved. It threatened to take away Aiken’s opportunity at even stepping on the court in a Seton Hall jersey in his homecoming season.
But now, the Pirates’ quarter of senior players are just over 24 hours away from having their moment in front of their friends, families, teammates, coaching staff, and faithful Seton Hall fans for their Senior Night.
“That means the world to me,” Mamukelashvili said. “I saw how MP (Myles Powell) left, how Angel (Delgado) left, how the older guys left – there were lots of fans in the building and it was a magical moment. Just having my family there really means the world but adding fans and giving us the opportunity to have the same Senior Night as the guys before us, it’s amazing.”
Mamukelashvili, Cale and Reynolds were key parts of the Seton Hall teams that made the last two NCAA tournaments and claimed a shared Big East regular season title last season. They also made a Big East Tournament final during the 2018-19 season where they were just edged out by Villanova 74-72. Though the regular season title is out of reach, a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and the chance to claim an elusive Big East Tournament title are still possibilities for the senior Pirates this season.
All three have taken tremendous strides in their development and contributions to the team as well. Mamukelashvili was named as one of the five finalists for the Karl Malone Award, Reynolds became a starter after three years of being a key rotation piece off the bench and Cale has had close to a career-season averaging 12.5 points and 3.7 rebounds.
“I think we did exactly what we were supposed to do,” Cale said. “We came in, and we’re trying to leave that legacy, but we’re not done – we’re far from done in my eyes. That’s really what we wanted to do when we got here on campus. We saw the Seton Hall history and how other people left their mark here and how their names are still talked about today.”
For Cale and Reynolds, this year may not be their last in a Seton Hall jersey. The NCAA granted all college athletes an extra year of eligibility after the cancellation of last year’s season, and the option to return is open for either of the senior players. Though neither has made a decision as to whether they will take advantage of that extra year, there’s no doubt head coach Kevin Willard would welcome them back as leadership figures in next year’s team.
For Aiken, though, this year has been all about giving back to the program he had dreams of playing for when he was a little kid.
“To be back here in New Jersey was a dream come true for me,” Aiken said. “As a kid, I always dreamed of wearing Pirate Blue and representing Pirate nation. Even though I haven’t been on the court that much, I’ve just been super, super thankful for the opportunity to come here.”
Aiken’s injury proneness over the season has dented the fairytale return he had hoped for with his most recent issue being tendinitis in his knee. While his presence on the court has been missed over the last few games, he has continued to be a voice off the court for his teammates, especially freshman point guard Jahari Long. In Aiken’s absence, Long has seen an increase in his minutes on the court as head coach Kevin Willard looked for ways to keep Reynolds fresh and out of any potential foul trouble as the outright starter.
Ironically, Aiken’s last game for the Pirates came on Feb. 6 in their win at the University of Connecticut where he scored nine points. Now, with UConn coming to the Prudential Center for Wednesday’s Senior Night game, Aiken may get a last-minute green light to take part in his first game in over a month for Seton Hall and potentially his final one at home.
Underneath what will be an emotional night for these four players is a must-win game. After two consecutive losses to bottom four Big East opposition in Georgetown and Butler, the Pirates’ NCAA Tournament hopes are hanging by a thread as the regular season ends this week and the team still lacks a signature win. UConn won’t be an easy game to bounce back from these losses either, especially with star guard James Bouknight available this time around against Seton Hall.
“I think we just need to play and have fun with the game,” Reynolds said. “Sometimes, I think you can get caught up in all the March Madness stuff and making the tournament. I think we played very tense at Butler – we didn’t play loose, and we didn’t just play basketball. I think that’s the biggest thing we need to do – just play basketball.”
It’s almost fitting that in the most mentally and physically taxing season these players have played in while at Seton Hall, everything might come down to Wednesday night. It’s not a tournament final and it’s not for a regular season title, but it’s to give a proper send-off to a quartet of players who have given it their all over their collegiate careers and keep the team’s dream of making a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament alive.
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.