Not all surprises in college sports are good surprises, but the last-minute arrangement of Seton Hall’s game against Iona on Monday night was a pleasant one for Kevin Willard and the Pirates. While it served as another good tune-up ahead of their Big East schedule in December, it also provided Willard with the opportunity to get a nice 86-64 win over his old mentor, Rick Pitino, in the Pirates’ home-opener at the Prudential Center.
“The emotions hit me when I walked on the floor and saw [Pitino],” Willard said. “Just hearing him coach, it felt like I was an assistant coach again. As someone that loves him and cares for him and knows what he’s gone through over these last four or five years, just seeing him back on the sideline in the place I love was joyful.”
There was an eerie atmosphere to start the game as cardboard cutouts replaced the rowdy Seton Hall student section, and the prerecorded marching band seemed out of place without fans to add to the noise.
Seton Hall seemed to struggle without that noise as well as Iona gave the Pirates a few headaches in the first half. The Gaels were especially impressive from three-point range, shooting seven for 10 and taking a two-point lead into half time.
“We knew they were going to come out and play really well in the first half,” Willard said. “You’re talking about a Hall of Fame coach. To be perfectly honest with you, I wasn’t shocked we were down nine. I just knew we had to get to half time and cut it close.”
The Pirates shot well to start the game but were let down by sloppy defensive work at the perimeter and offensive fouls. Isaiah Ross led Iona with 15 points by the end of the half and shot four for seven from behind the arc. Nelly Junior Joseph added six points and four rebounds in the first half for Iona.
Jared Rhoden hit a three-point shot and assisted a Myles Cale layup to help close the gap to two points as the Pirates finished the half on a 7-0 run. Rhoden led Seton Hall with 10 points and three rebounds at the end of the first half.
“That was more of what I was expecting to see against Louisville,” Willard said. “Jared went back to what makes him special in that he doesn’t just try to score. He rebounded, he got out on the break and that’s what makes Jared really hard to scout. His energy and his emotion were phenomenal, we really fed off that.”
As both Rhoden and Sandro Mamukelashvili came to life in the second half offensively, so did the team collectively on defense. Myles Cale and Shavar Reynolds came back into the game with an extra bit of energy to start the second half that initiated the team’s comeback. Takal Molson also provided the Pirates with a solid 20-minute performance on either side of the court.
Mamukelashvili’s three-point jumper five minutes into the second half turned the tides for the Pirates as they regained the lead and Tyrese Samuel followed up the play with a layup of his own. Mamukelashvili finished the game with 18 points, seven rebounds and one assist. Samuel had an efficient shooting night, going five for seven from the field and two for four from behind the arc.
Rhoden scored a career-high 26 points on the night, scoring nine of 10 free throws and shooting three for six from three-point range and seven for 14 from the field. It was a much-needed improvement after going three for 12 from the field against Louisville on Friday, and it was enough to help the Pirates dig themselves out of the small deficit they were in at half time. Rhoden also led the team in rebounds with 10 on the night.
Shavar Reynolds had another strong all-around performance at point guard. He scored five points and assisted eight while also chipping in with five steals and one defensive rebound.
“As he gets more reps, as he gets more comfortable, as he gets more confidence, I have extreme confidence in him,” Willard said. “He can be really simple on offense and effective, he had eight assists and three turnovers. At the same time, he really changes the game defensively for us. I’m asking him to do a lot right now, but I think that he can do it.”
Seton Hall have a busy week ahead with four games within the next eight days. The Pirates face the University of Rhode Island on Wednesday, No. 21 Oregon on Friday, Penn State on Sunday and Wagner next Tuesday before opening their Big East season at home to DePaul next Friday.
- Molson continued to contribute off the bench, and Samuel rebounded from the loss to Louisville well. Molson finished with seven points, two rebounds and three assists as the team's go-to sixth man off the bench. Samuel also showed once again that when he’s hot, he can get points in the paint and from range.
- Another slow night for Obiagu. While the team collectively made its mistakes defensively in the first half, Obiagu just looked a step behind everyone else. Three blocks and five rebounds are nothing to scoff at, but he needs to show a bit more alertness.
- Seton Hall’s second half performance was the type of display they need out of Cale, Mamukelashvili and Rhoden consistently this season. They don’t all need to hit the 15-point mark every single game, but the scoring and creative responsibility was equally shared across them in that dominant second half. If they can foster and sustain that rhythm in time for Bryce Aiken’s return, the Pirates are going to be difficult to stop.
Justin Sousa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.