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A Senior Night like no other: Mamukelashvili’s final hoorah at the Rock

Sandro Mamukelashvili has seen the likes of Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Mike Nzei, Myles Powell and Quincy McKnight each be celebrated by thousands of Seton Hall fans on their Senior Nights. Each of those men’s basketball greats played a role in Mamukelashvili’s development as a player, and each has written their name in Seton Hall men’s basketball lore through their four years of commitment to the program.

On Wednesday, Mamukelashvili will take the court for his Senior Night and his final home game at the Prudential Center in a Seton Hall jersey. Not only will his family from the small Eastern European country of Georgia be in attendance to cheer him on, but so will 1,700 Seton Hall fans as the building welcomes back spectators to a home basketball game for the first since last March.

“I’m an emotional guy, but I’m also a really positive guy,” Mamukelashvili said. “My senior night will be one to remember. There’s been so many good things to happen to me while I’ve been at Seton Hall. I’ve grown as a person off the court and I’ve matured as a human being. It’ll be sad, but it’ll feel like everything’s come together. A lot of people don’t get there, but it’s amazing to have a senior night knowing that there could be fans and my family will be there.”

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Photo by Jillian Cancela

Shavar Reynolds was one of four other members of Mamukelashvili’s initial freshman class, and he’s been with the Georgian forward every step of the way in his growth as a player.

Both players came into the program with external and internal doubts over whether they would make the cut at Seton Hall. Both were seemingly outsiders in that Reynolds joined the team as a walk-on and Mamukelashvili came in barely speaking English, but the commitment both men exhibited got them to their roles as key leaders on the team. On Wednesday, they will walk out on the court having proved all those initial doubters wrong.

“Greatness, pure greatness,” Reynolds said. “He worked every year, kept getting better and he never let a situation deter him from becoming the player he is today. I’m nothing but proud of Sandro, and I can’t wait to help him and me and MC [Myles Cale]and Bryce [Aiken] go out with a bang.”

For Mamukelashvili, though, there are far more layers to this year’s Senior Night than just another celebration of his and his teammates’ accomplishments over the last four years. It’s a testament to the physical, mental and emotional strength they have all shown since the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. last year.

Just a week after Powell, McKnight, Romaro Gill and Asiah Avent had their Senior Night, the Big East canceled the remainder of its conference tournament and the NCAA canceled the NCAA Tournament over the course of 24 hours due to the continued spread of coronavirus in the United States and around the world.

Nobody knew how long teams would be off the court. Nor did they know how long it would take to overcome the pandemic. Each day was met with uncertainty as to how any potential season would play out, and that uncertainty was a frightening reality for Mamukelashvili to face after he announced he would be returning to Seton Hall for his senior season back in August.

“Coming in, I was scared because of the coronavirus,” Mamukelashvili said. “At that moment, I thought we wouldn’t have a full season, so I felt like there was always doubt in the back of my mind as to what was going to happen.”

The uncertainty that loomed over the 2020-21 regular season persisted even after the NCAA announced in mid-September that both the men’s and women’s college basketball seasons would start on Nov. 25. The growing number of positive COVID-19 cases across the country made it difficult for any program to feel that a full season was assured, even at Seton Hall.

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Two weeks before the start of the season, two COVID-19 tests came back positive for tier-one personnel within the men’s basketball team. The team was placed under a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon discovery of the results. Their first game of the season was scheduled to be played at Louisville on Nov. 27, giving them enough time to quarantine and travel for the game, but that required no other members of the program testing positive beyond that point.

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Photo by Jillian Cancela

Without in-person practices, Mamukelashvili and his teammates watched endless amounts of film while they tried to stay fit in their living quarters for those two weeks. There wasn’t much else they could do in quarantine while also trying to prepare for their first game of the season. The turnaround from the team testing negative to tip-off in Louisville was tight, but the euphoria of being back on the court was all the Pirates cared about.

“Once we stepped on the court and the buzzer went off in Louisville, I forgot everything about coronavirus and personal problems,” Mamukelashvili said. “The joy of playing and love of the game came back to me.”

The Pirates have avoided another COVID-19 shut down since then, playing all but one Big East regular season home game against Xavier this season. Mamukelashvili has also lived up to his Preseason All-Big East Team selection with 18.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game as the true center piece of everything Seton Hall do in the front court.

Throughout this season, he scored a career-high 32 points against St. John’s in the team’s Big East opener and recorded two double-double games against Marquette and DePaul. Recently announced as a Karl Malone Award finalist, Mamukelashvili will also be playing for the title of best power forward in college basketball this season against Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, Pittsburgh’s Justin Champagnie and Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.

Mamukelashvili has never been one for individual accolades, though. In any interview he has ever taken part in, he has always made sure to thank those who have helped him to continue achieving his goals. With his sights set on entering the NBA Draft at the end of this season, the Georgian forward was not hesitant to reflect on his humble beginnings at Seton Hall and how the coaching staff groomed him into the player and man he is today.

“It’s been a dream come true,” Mamukelashvili said. “Coming in, I didn’t speak English that well. I was watching my first interview, and I didn’t understand what I said, so I don’t know how you guys understood what I was saying. I feel like I’ve come a long way, and it’s definitely because of Coach Willard and the whole staff – Grant (Billmeier), Forty (Duane Woodward), (Tony) Skinn – they all work for me and on my mindset.”

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Photo by Jillian Cancela

Even off the court, Mamukelashvili found a best friend in teammate Myles Cale to experience the ups and downs of being college basketball players in one of the top conferences in the country. Cale said there were too many memories and funny moments to recall just one that stood out to him over the years, but he knows that he has found a “brother for life” in Mamukelashvili.

“That’s my guy; I could go on for days and days about him. He’s like a brother to me. It’s crazy how he came from this small country and I came from this small state and we ended up here in New Jersey,” Cale, who is from Delaware, said. “It’s a blessing that I can share these memories with him.”

The only thing missing from this season so far has been fans. That all changes on Wednesday, though, when 1,700 of Seton Hall’s loyal basketball fans will be allowed into the Prudential Center for the Pirates’ Senior Night game against the University of Connecticut.

Wednesday night’s game against the Huskies also holds meaning beyond sending off the seniors with a win in their final home game. After back-to-back losses to Georgetown and Butler, Seton Hall must win their last two games against UConn and St. John’s to keep any hope of making it to the NCAA Tournament. The extra few hundred voices cheering from the stands of The Rock may be the intangible piece that helps get the Pirates over the edge.

“Just going to places that have fans – like Creighton and Butler – it was difficult to play there because of the noise,” Mamukelashvili said. “Fans are definitely going to help us, and I feel like they’re eager to come to the game because they missed the whole season. Even 10% is going to make a lot of noise, and it’ll just be amazing to have them back.”

The noise will be back for Mamukelashvili and his teammates. It may not be 17,000 fans, but the welcomed return of any external cheering from beyond the benches and where the players’ families sit will make it feel like a full house again.

“I worked hard my four years. I put my heart and soul into this team, I put my heart and soul into my development and put my heart and soul into listening to coach,” Mamukelashvili said. “Just being one of the top players in this conference was my dream coming in as a freshman. I used to look at the top players and say to myself, ‘One day, I will be that player who everyone talks about and looks at on their scouting report.’”

Mamukelashvili is the one everyone is talking about, and, for UConn’s sake, he better be on their scouting report.

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

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