The stage was set for a fairy-tale ending to the quartet of the Seton Hall seniors’ final home game of the season. Fans were back in attendance, their NCAA Tournament hopes were on the line, they were up against a historic Big East rival in the University of Connecticut and it was Senior Night.
Unfortunately, it was a second consecutive Senior Night in which the Pirates were unable to send their senior players off with a final home win.
Their strong start to the first half was met by a defensive collapse in its final four minutes, and Seton Hall never seemed to figure out how to shut down the Huskies’ efficiency in the paint. Mamukelashvili had a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Huskies from securing a 69-58 win.
Despite the Senior Night festivities, it was junior Jared Rhoden who got Seton Hall going to start the game. His pair of opening two-point baskets were signed off by Seton Hall’s first three-point basket of the game, giving the Pirates an early 7-0 lead over the Huskies.
In the back court, Seton Hall did an excellent job at clogging UConn’s passing lanes and staying tight to its opponents on the perimeter. A sputtering Huskies offense gave up four turnovers in the first five minutes of the game and shot just 1-for-6 from the field.
Adama Sanogo led a small revival of the Huskies’ offense as they came back after the first media timeout with reinvigorated energy in the post. Sanogo beat Tyrese Samuel down low for his third basket of the game, and James Bouknight and Isaiah Whaley both added to UConn’s runs with a layup each.
Whaley would tie the game at 17-17 with a three-point basket, but Mamukelashvili responded in the Pirates’ next possession with a three-point basket of his own to regain Seton Hall’s lead.
Neither side could hit the basket over a three-minute period from the under-10 mark, but Mamukelashvili broke the Pirates’ drought with his third basket of the game. Sanogo would break UConn’s five-minute scoring drought and the Pirates’ 7-0 run with a layup of his own, but the Huskies shot just 1-for-10 until the under-three mark.
"I thought our defense in the first half was really good," Willard said. "I thought we were really connected. We played really well defensively, even in the second half. I think we just got off to a really sloppy start offensively in the second half. Sanogo really kicked out butt; he played great."
The tides of the game turned as the Huskies silenced the Pirates’ offense in the final four minutes of the half. An RJ Cole three-point basket ignited an 8-0 run to finish out the half for the Huskies, sending them into halftimehalf time with their first lead of the game at 27-26.
Rhoden finished the half with a team-leading 11 points but shot 0-for-1 in the final 10 minutes of the first half. Mamukelashvili had eight points and team-high five rebounds to go along with three assists. The Pirates also out-shot the Huskies from three-point range shooting 40% from range compared to UConn’s 38%, but they were out-rebounded by their opponents 19-16.
Seton Hall was on the wrong end of a 6-0 run to start the second half as Bouknight hit a mid-range jumper before Whaley and Sanogo added to UConn’s lead with a layup each. Sanogo defensively was an impenetrable force in the first half, keeping Mamukelashvili quiet in the paint for the first 20 minutes and the opening two minutes of the second half.
"I feel like we just got a little hot-headed," Mamukelashvili said. "Everyone got nervous that they went on a little run."
The Pirates’ misery to start the second half only got worse as the Huskies continued to dominate in the paint and in one-on-one situations. Shavar Reynolds and Mamukelashvili struggled to get to the rim at times, and neither Cale nor Rhoden took many shots from three-point range.
"UConn's the best defensive team in the conference," Willard said. "I thought we got off to good start and we had good spacing. To their credit, they were really physical with us, and I think that really bothered us around the rim."
UConn dominated the paint and off second-chance points, leading the Pirates in those categories by a combined score of 38-31. Sanogo scored two layups in the opening six minutes of the half accompanied by a pair of jumpers from Whaley and Cole. Rhoden and Samuel worked a bit more energy out of the crowd with dunks in back-to-back possessions, but the Huskies kept finding holes in the Pirates’ paint defense with another Whaley layup to make it 48-36.
UConn’s offense seemed to hit every basket they put up as well, scoring eight consecutive baskets with Jalen Gaffney’s first of the game giving them their biggest lead of the game at 13 points. Aiken’s got the Pirates two points off a goaltending call against the Huskies to bring the Pirates back to within 11 points, but UConn was looking strong with a 52-41 lead with seven minutes left in the game.
The Pirates fought back to bring the game back to within as close as seven points down the stretch, but a combination of missed free throws, hesitation on three-point opportunities and lack of efficiency in the paint prevented Seton Hall from surmounting their deficit. Seton Hall matched UConn for second-chance points with 32 and points in the paint with 16 by the end of the game, but the Huskies showed more desire to win rebounds as they out-rebounded the Pirates 40-28 overall and 27-19 in the back court.
"We only got a couple of games left in the regular season and then Big East Tournament, but we're definitely not quitting," Mamukelashvili said. "That's one thing about this team: the fight and mindset that they have. I just want to thank all my teammates because they really supported us throughout the whole year, and now is not the time to turn our backs to each other."
With this loss against the Huskies, the Pirates’ hopes of making it to the NCAA Tournament for a fifth consecutive season looked done and buried. It’s their third loss in a row following away losses to Georgetown and Butler, and the team still lacks a signature win to its name.
"Senior Night's become really emotional in this program because we've had so many guys come through that get better and are such great kids," Willard added. "Senior Night's a little tough. We haven't played very well on Senior Night becuase of that; it's kind of emotional, but I've been blessed to have those four guys in our program."
With Saturday’s away trip to St. John’s being their last game of the regular season, it would take quite the Big East Tournament run to help rectify the damage these last three games caused.
"It was lovely (to have fans back)," Cale said. "I would like to thank Pirate Nation and the Blue Army for coming out today and supporting us and doing everything they could to help us. We apologize for not coming up with the win, but we're going to keep fighting."
Coach Willard was also optimistic after the game, saying the team were in a "great position" despite their tough run over form as of late.
"At the beginning of this year, I knew it was going to be a challenge to get to where we want to get to," Willard said. "These kids have played their hearts out, and I think they've played phenomenal. We've played with a lot of pressure these last two games of trying to make the NCAA Tournament, but we still have the Johnnies and the Big East Tournament to make our case. My message to them was very simple: 'Let's keep staying the course.'"
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.