NEW YORK – The Seton Hall men’s basketball team needed every inch – every last one – on Friday night to reach the Saturday promise-land of the Big East Tournament. In an affair that was marred by controversial officiating, the Pirates overcame second-seeded Marquette, 81-79, setting up the ultimate rivalry renewal with top-seed Villanova.
One night after praising his budding superstar, Myles Powell, for his poise in dealing with foul trouble, Kevin Willard and Powell found themselves at the center of a circus, as all 19,800 at Madison Square Garden wondered whether or not the junior from Trenton would be able to play the game’s final 13 minutes and 15 seconds.
With 13:15 remaining and the Pirates trailing, 53-50, Powell exploded into the lane and was sent crashing down to the court by Marquette forward Theo John.
The fireworks began after Powell burst up from the court. In a scene of chaos, an enraged Powell was swarmed by teammates and ultimately his head coach, stopping him from charging at John. Acting less a coach and more of a father, Willard wrapped his arms around the distressed guard, consoling him while officials decided how to litigate the skirmish.
And so, both sets of benches huddled and waited, and waited and waited – a stoppage that stretched out roughly 10 minutes, weighing down patience as groans and choruses of boos ringed around the Mecca.
When the review finally commenced, John and Sacar Anim of Marquette were ejected, as was Sandro Mamukelashvili of Seton Hall, who reacted to the initial incident. Meanwhile, Powell, amid the disorder, walked off the court and to the locker room.
Powell thought he had received his second technical foul; he had been whistled for a non-common foul in the first half. The foul from the first half was, however, a flagrant 1, not a technical foul.
It all seems unfathomable, but it played out in the wee hours of Friday night into Saturday morning. The semifinal – supposed to naturally be a showcase for the Big East – became a farcical 40 minutes of whistles. All told, there were 49 fouls, nine of which were technicals.
“So many unusual things happened, I don’t know if I even want to get into specifics,” Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski said afterward. “But, it was the most unusual, unusual basketball game I’ve ever been a part of.”
The Pirates’ sensational volume scorer returning from the locker room was the apex of bedlam. From Powell’s perspective, in the biggest game of his career to date, he was given a second lease on life.
“Coach said, ‘Come back out.’ So, I’m wiping my tears, I’m like, ‘Come back out!?’” Powell said afterward.
“It was crazy. I mean, just to be able to be called back to the game, I was happy. I felt like I let my teammates down. So, them giving me a second chance, I really appreciate it. So, I mean, it’s all a blessing.”
Powell proceeded to do what he has done with remarkable consistency all season: outshine the opposition. Opposite him was Big East Player of the Season, Markus Howard; a cream-of-the-crop offensive juxtaposition.
For the second time in nine days, though, Powell delivered in the clutch while Howard was stymied. The Pirates’ All-Big East junior had 22 points, 18 of which came in the ultra-wild second half. The Big East Player of the Season, meanwhile, shot 1-for-15 from the floor and 1-for-9 from beyond the arc.
But in a game with mayhem at every corner, even a routine, wide-open dunk to punch a Championship Saturday ticket went haywire.
With under a minute remaining, the Pirates broke the Golden Eagles’ press and Myles Cale bounced Jared Rhoden the ball underneath the basket. All the freshman needed to do was go straight up and put the ball through the rim, and Seton Hall would have a six-point lead.
Instead, inexplicably, Rhoden fumbled the dunk and was charged with a technical foul for hanging on the rim while grabbing the rebound. Not only did Seton Hall miss out on two insurance points, but Marquette got a free throw opportunity and possession. After three Howard free throws, the Pirate lead was down to one.
Forced into the game after McKnight and Mike Nzei fouled out, Shavar Reynolds beat out Jamal Cain of Marquette for a crucial offensive rebound with six seconds left, but he only made one of two subsequent free throws.
With time winding down, Howard moved dangerously up the court, a three-pointer away from snatching victory for Marquette. The embattled marksman stepped back into a three, for the win, but his shot hit the front of the rim.
Immediately, McKnight made a beeline to Powell, arms outstretched, and hugged the leading scorer tightly. 13 minutes and 15 seconds of game-time ago, Powell thought he was ejected. Nine days prior, around the 13:15 mark against Marquette at the Prudential Center, Seton Hall thought it was out of the NCAA Tournament.
The win was not without its ugliness, including an exchange with Powell and Wojciechowski after the handshake lines. For the Pirates, though, the black marks of officiating and testiness do not spoil the splendor of knowing another Saturday night date with Villanova at Madison Square Garden awaits them.
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.