After nearly eight years without a Big East game between Seton Hall and the University of Connecticut, Saturday’s meeting between the two sides did not disappoint.
The Pirates’ last meeting with the Huskies came on Feb. 10, 2013 with UConn winning 78-67 at the Prudential Center. Seton Hall’s last win over them came on Jan. 3, 2012, but there had not been a Seton Hall win over UConn in Connecticut since Mar. 1, 1997. On Saturday, Willard and his team ended that nearly 24-year drought with a massive 80-73 win at the Gampel Pavilion.
“It’s phenomenal,” Willard said. “It’s a high intensity game. Danny’s teams are discipline don defense and physical on defense. It’s an old school Big East game. It’s great to have them back in the league.”
Seniors Myles Cale and Sandro Mamukelashvili were especially outstanding in the win over UConn, combining for 42 points and nine rebounds.
“I really got after them,” Willard said. “I wanted them to play with a little bit more of an edge, a little bit angry. Myles Cale and Sandro have been phenomenal, and Shavar [Reynolds] has just been Shavar, as steady as he can be offensively and defensively. They answered with not only big games, but before practices this week, they were really intense and really got after it.”
As expected, Daniel Hurley and Kevin Willard locked horns in a battle of whose defense could outlast the other’s offense. Both sides started the game with a tight defensive structure inside the paint to neutralize each other’s threat from down low. It was a test of whose defense could keep out the other’s offense and refrain from fouling for longer, but it was the Huskies who cracked first. Mamukelashvili earned two fouls within the first two minutes of the game to give the Pirates a 4-0 lead to start the game.
Despite having just three rebounds in the first half, Ike Obiagu’s defensive presence kept UConn’s Adama Sanogo and Brendan Adams to just six points and two rebounds in the first half. Mamukleashvili also contributed five rebounds with three coming on the defensive end. Cale also delivered another strong defensive performance for the Pirates to help keep the Huskies at just 29 points in the first half.
“I think I’ve definitely stepped it up,” Cale said. “I was watching some film, and I felt like I could do a lot more with my length and athleticism on opponents. I just tried to lock in, do what I do and lead the way on the defensive end.”
Seton Hall out-rebounded the Huskies 18 to 13 with Mamukelashvili, Obiagu and Jared Rhoden combining for 12. Tyrese Martin and Andre Jackson each had four for UConn, but those came late on in the half as the Huskies looked to bounce back from their slow offensive start.
As the initial focus on defensive solidity began to ware away from both sides, UConn and Seton hall shifted to a two-three zone defense to put a bit more pressure on each other’s creative players. The Pirates would benefit from UConn’s more expansive defense, though, as they put together an 8-0 run led by a pair of three-point baskets from Cale. The Huskies shot 1-for-9 from the field during that initial four-minute period.
As the Huskies looked to claw their way back into the game, Seton Hall held off their initial run and prevented them from scoring for over three minutes.
Tyrese Samuel took up some of the scoring responsibility down this stretch with two three-point baskets of his own to give the Pirates a 28-15 lead. The Pirates were 4-for-5 from beyond the arc while the Huskies scored just one of their four three-point shot attempts with seven minutes remaining.
With four minutes remaining in the first half, the Pirates found themselves with their biggest lead of the game at 18 with Cale and Mamukelashvili combining for 19 of their 36 points. Jalen Gaffney led a slight recovery by the Huskies to finish the half with nine points, but the Pirates held off their 11-2 run to take a nine-point lead into half time.
“When I see [Myles] do well, it just hypes me up,” Mamukelashvili said. “The game just comes to me. I feel like he plays so hard and I know he’s had some rough games, but, right now, he’s found his rhythm and he’s playing amazing.”
As expected, the Huskies came out hot scoring two free throws and adding five points from the field to pull within one possession of Seton Hall with a Brendan Adams three-point basket. Mamukelashvili would kill their momentum with a three-point basket of his own in response, and a steal by Rhoden in UConn’s half led to a ferocious dunk by Cale.
Adama Sanogo layup on the following UConn possession, but Rhoden would steal the spotlight with a jumper and buzzer-beating three-point basket to put Seton Hall 10 points clear. Rhoden found himself in foul travel midway through the second half, but he finished the game with 11 points, six rebounds and three assists
Down the stretch, both sides really forced one another to battle down low for a basket. In that respect, UConn outscored the Pirates with 14 points in the paint compared to eight, but it was the Pirates’ ability to share the ball and find open looks across the court that continued to shut down the Huskies.
“It’s experience,” Mamukelashvili said. “We had a really tough three losses, and I feel like we learned a lot from them, especially the seniors. We started to understand how to defend ourselves when other teams went on a run. We watched a lot of film these last couple of days and just studied ourselves and where we could improve.”
With the game separated by just four points, though, Shavar Reynolds also found himself on four fouls at the under-five mark. In the absence of two of the team’s better defensive players, Cale and Mamukelashvili showed their seniority and maturity on either side of the court to see out the win. Cale finished the game with 20 points and two rebounds while Mamukelashvili finished with 22 points and seven rebounds and shot 10-for-12 from the free throw line.
“I would never be where I am right now without my teammates,” Mamukelashvili said. “Off court plays a big role too because we’re always together. We just share off-court chemistry where when we get on the court, we all know if somebody gets us going just give him the ball. We’re all just happy for each other and an unselfish team.”
Seton Hall also did well to score their free throws as whole, shooting 27-for-31 compared to UConn’s 21-for-25. Cale said after the game that Willard has the team shoot free throws after every drill in practice, and the benefit of those extra repetitions clearly showed in Saturday’s win.
After three consecutive losses to No. 3 Villanova and No. 15 Creighton, the Pirates came into this week knowing they needed wins over Providence and UConn. After securing those wins, Mamukelashvili felt that the team were back on course to securing a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive year.
“We were very aware that our backs were against the wall,” Mamukelashvili said. “That’s when seniors have to step up and deliver. I feel like coach did a great job of putting us in positions to deliver. We had tough losses, but I feel like we had to win this game and we have to win a lot more.”
Willard also shared that his own experience and growth as coach were essential to keeping the team from falling off after their tough stretch of games.
“I don’t lose it as much as I used to, and I have a better understanding of where we stand and what we need to do,” Willard said. “I think that helps me try to get the team focused on where we need to get going. It’s one of those things that as I’ve gotten older, you can’t lose sight of what we’ve worked on, where we’ve been and where we need to go.”
The Pirates now have a week until they play Marquette at the Prudential Center. In the reverse fixture, Seton Hall beat the Golden Eagles 70-63 in Wisconsin.
Justin Sousa can be reach at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.