The Pirates finally returned home to Prudential Center on Sunday after two games at the Fort Myers Tip-Off Tournament in Fort Myers, Fla. Those two games included a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State and a nail-biting win over #122 Kenpom ranked California.
Looking to wash the bad taste out of their mouths from their 1-1 performance during Feast Week, Kevin Willard’s squad began an easier stretch of mid-major and Division II opponents on their schedule that began with Bethune-Cookman, a team that started the year 1-5 and sat at #355 of #358 in the Kenpom rankings.
What was supposed to be a “gimme” game became another nail-biter in the first half.
A sloppy offensive performance from the Pirates included two uncontested, airballed 3’s and a whopping 9 turnovers despite 7 points from Jared Rhoden and 7 rebounds from Alexis Yetna.
On the other end, the Pirate defense allowed the Wildcats to shoot 54% from the floor and 60% from the three-point line, in spite of Ike Obiagu’s 3 blocks and the Pirates’ 5.
Seton Hall looked unprepared and sluggish out the gates, and an unsettled Prudential Center crowd made sure the team knew.
"We didn't come out with the level of energy and intensity we wanted to," said Jamir Harris of their first half performance. "In the locker room [at halftime] we were just talking to one another, locking in, getting our intensity to the level we needed to win the game, and coach [Willard] reiterated that."
The second half started with more of the same until a 13-2 run 4 minutes into the half put the Pirates up 10, a lead they would not concede.
Yetna had his best game as a Pirate, dropping 14 points along with 13 rebounds and an assist, while Rhoden’s consistent team-best performances continued, as he scored a team-high 18 points with 4 rebounds.
Willard said of Yetna's performance, "I think some of his stats and rebounding issues have been more of the way I've used him on offense than him, but it was good to see him be out there and be aggressive."
The gameplan seemed to flip for the Pirates after a lackluster first half that saw the Pirates make just 3 of 17 deep balls. Willard’s squad started to use their size advantage and drove to the basket, a skill they had been missing since the loss of Myles Cale. They doubled their inside attack and got to the line, scoring 36 points in the paint and hitting a near-perfect 20 of 21 free throws.
Even their deep shooting improved, finishing 5 for 12 in the second half from behind the three-point line.
Still, the team is not worried about specific games aspects. Playing a complete game and staying united as a team is what matters to the Pirates.
Harris said, "I feel like, at the end of the day, if we stay together through thick and thin, we're going to turn out to win a lot of games, no matter how well we're shooting the ball or taking care of the ball and things of that nature. I feel like we got a close-knit group, we really enjoy each others' presence, I feel like our chemistry is something that's underrated, but we know how much we care for one another and it shows on the court."
Knowing how to play well together is integral for the Pirates to win games considering there is no concrete lineup and rotation as of yet.
Willard said, "I'm still trying to figure out my rotation. I really am. Who I can play together, who compliments well, what I can run with each group out there, who to get the ball when, I'm still a work-in-progress. We're literally playing nine to ten guys so, more than anything I'm trying to figure out lineups, plays with lineups, certain defenses with lineups, so we're a long way from being a smooth, cohesive group."
The somewhat softer segment of Seton Hall’s schedule will continue on Wednesday when they take on Wagner at Prudential Center, a game Cale will not return for according to Willard.
Brendan Balsamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.