Graduate guard Bryce Aiken was the star of the show and the winner of the Joe Calabrese MVP Trophy in No. 23 Seton Hall’s (9-1) 77-63 win over cross-state rival Rutgers (5-5) in the Garden State Hardwood Classic on Sunday night.
The Harvard-transfer scored 22 points in the victory, including 14 in the second half. His deep three-pointer with 3:51 remaining put the Hall up 13, a dagger that the Scarlet Knights could not recover from. Aiken’s performance could not have come at a better time, shutting down a pumped-up Rutgers squad just 3 days after beating No. 1 Purdue on a buzzer-beating half-court shot.
“The fans aren’t used to seeing [Aiken] play. We’ve been with him now two years, and this is what we see in practice. He’s going to take a 38-footer on the break. He’s got that ability. He has that confidence,” said head coach Kevin Willard of his point guard’s performance.
The production for the Pirates did not just come from Aiken, however, as four other Pirates produced double-digit points. One of those high scorers was senior guard Jared Rhoden, who put on a show in the second half after having an uncharacteristically slow first.
Having only shot 1-7 from the floor to start, Rhoden came out of the locker room in the second half looking more confident and aggressive, a mentality that led him to score 14 points in the final twenty minutes. His 16-point, 9-rebound performance helped Aiken lead the charge down the stretch.
“He wasn’t knocking down shots in the first half, but a player as talented as him is going to come around, so we’re not worried about that. He’s a dog,” Aiken said of Rhoden’s play.
Rhoden, now in his fourth season as a Pirate, was a part of the last matchup between the New Jersey schools in December 2019 when Rutgers beat No. 15 Seton Hall 68-48 at Rutgers Athletic Center.
“I give credit to Rutgers, man. They’re a hell of a team. But I had a bad taste in my mouth from 2 years ago. I have this picture in my phone that I never forget about. It’s some kid on the bench at Rutgers that was screaming in my face when I fell on the floor. And that’s something that resonated with me forever. Every time I think of Rutgers I think of that moment,” he said.
Sophomore guard Kadary Richmond also showed off a more aggressive gameplan after some quiet performances lately, driving to the basket and scoring through contact against Rutgers’ inside threats. All 12 of the Syracuse transfer’s points were in the first half, a crucial development considering the lack of offensive production from Rhoden.
When asked about the difference in having a point guard like Richmond from Seton Hall’s point guards of the past, Willard said, “I’m 9-1. It’s a big difference. Kadary Richmond’s a pro. He’s going to make a lot of money in this game. Once Kadary gets in really really good shape, there’s another gear that people haven’t seen with him that I see.”
On the other end, graduate guard Myles Cale kept the Scarlet Knights at bay with a whopping 5 steals, contributing to the Pirates’ 13 fastbreak points and 22 points off turnovers with 10 of his own.
Willard said of Cale’s activity tonight, “I’ve said this all along for the last four years: Myles Cale is one of the best players I’ve ever coached. It doesn’t show up in the stat sheets, but when he’s on the court, I’m a better coach and we’re a better basketball team. I love the fact he’s being more aggressive on the defensive end. He’s going for steals and getting in passing lanes. He’s the best defender in college basketball.”
Alexis Yetna, the graduate transfer from USF, also scored 10 and stuffed the scoresheet with 4 assists, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks. With the big, 7-foot-2, Ike Obiagu-sized shoes to fill under the basket, Yetna stepped in nicely and made a huge difference down low against Rutgers’ killer big men just three days after posting a double-double against No. 7 Texas.
Yetna’s effort in the paint was not singlehanded, though, as junior forward Tyrese Samuel also stepped up. 7 points and 9 rebounds for the 6-foot-10 Canadian not only pushed the offense forward, but his presence inside provided a defensive stimulant as well.
Sunday night’s win was Willard’s 213th of his career, putting him ahead of Seton Hall legend PJ Carlesimo for second in program history. Still, Willard has his sights set on Saturday’s Gotham Classic at Madison Square Garden against the program where he began his head coaching career and against the coach he started his coaching career under: Iona and Rick Pitino.
Now at 9-1 and tied for second in the Big East, a near-perfect non-conference record would prime the Pirates for conference play and give thema lot of leeway when it comes to their tournament resume.
Brendan Balsamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.