Thanks to a brutal loss to Ohio State in their first week in the AP Top 25, Seton Hall saw a four-spot drop this week to find themselves at the very final spot in the heralded rankings of the top basketball programs in the country.
The Pirates’ first test at the 25th spot was a familiar face, as the Pirates have faced them every year since 2017 and in six of the last seven seasons: the Wagner Seahawks.
The only undefeated team in the Northeast Conference (NEC), the Seahawks started the season hot thanks to two wins against Hartford and VCU, but had not played a game since Nov. 13 thanks to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program.
Although back to game shape, Wagner was still feeling the effects of the outbreak, as they were without head coach Bashir Mason and leading scorers Alex Morales and Will Martinez against the Pirates.
Wednesday’s contest provided an opportunity for the Pirates to continue to bolster their win total two games away from a stretch that includes No. 7 Texas, Rutgers, and Iona, a team that received one vote in the latest poll.
A first half that initially looked to be one that would be dominated by the Pirate offense later evened out thanks to pure athleticism on display from the Seahawks’ top guys. The Pirates’ best defensive effort could not stop the Wagner offensive push.
The offensive attack from the Pirates was extremely balanced, however. Kevin Willard’s squad saw six players score 5 points, as Alexis Yetna, Jared Rhoden, Jamir Harris, Ike Obiagu, Bryce Aiken, and Tray Jackson combined for 30 points, with the other five were provided by the combined efforts of Kadary Richmond and Tyrese Samuel.
After a shot that banked in at the buzzer to end the half, Wagner pulled within two as the teams entered the locker rooms. The Pirates’ slim lead was at 35-33.
Rhoden said, “These type of games, if they slip out your hands, your season’s not over but it’s detrimental to it, so I was the main advocate for trying to voice that to these guys, being a senior, knowing how it works. You know, can’t lose these type of games.”
Out the gates in the second half, it looked like it could have been more of the same, as the Pirates tried to pull away early but allowed Wagner to stay in it. They permitted a two minute-long, 6-0 scoring run that let the Seahawks stay within eight points, but then decided to turn up the heat and not let up.
When asked about the drastic difference between the first and second-half performances, Willard bluntly said, “We pressed. I know if we pressed early in games and got after it, we’d probably get into a better rhythm offensively but that’s not what these games are for. I really want to work on stuff and try to work on certain defensive concepts.”
Of the Pirates’ 50 second-half points, 32 were in the paint, as they really decided to turn up the physicality down low. The Pirate big men reaped the benefits of this changed gameplan.
Yetna finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds, while Samuel ended up with 15 points and 6 rebounds, an unbeatable formula for an undermanned team.
The offensive attack was not exclusively under the basket, however. Four other Pirates finished with double-digit points, as Jackson and Richmond had 10 each, Harris had 12, and Rhoden had 15.
Wednesday was Richmond’s big day, however, as his all-around game reared its beautiful head. Along with his point total, he amassed 6 rebounds and 9 assists, nearly enough for his first career double-double.
“It’s a good feeling to play with a true point guard,” Rhoden said of Richmond’s performance. “I know when I run the lane hard he’s going to find me.”
As for double-doubles, Rhoden is no stranger to them, as he gathered the seventh of his career on Wednesday, pulling in 11 rebounds with his 15 points.
The Pirates continue their run of weaker opponents with a matchup against Division II Nyack College at Walsh Gymnasium on Saturday before a difficult three-game stretch that will take them into conference-play.
Brendan Balsamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.