Powered by graduate guard Myles Cale's 21-point, 9-rebound performance, Seton Hall put down a feisty St. John's squad 66-60 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon.
After a week that saw the Pirates go 0-2 against DePaul and Marquette and drop out of the AP Top 25, Saturday's rivalry matchup was as must-win a game for head coach Kevin Willard and the Pirates as they have had all season.
They already got off on the wrong foot before the clock even started, as the team announced that point guard Bryce Aiken would not be playing in Saturday's game thanks to a concussion from the controversial foul call at the end of the Pirates' last game at Marquette. The loss of Aiken is a loss of 14.5 points per game and veteran leadership, as the sixth-year graduate student was playing his best basketball of his career as of late, dropping 24 points per game in his last 3 outings.
The game started fairly slow for both offenses with each team shooting under 35% in the game's first 20 minutes.
More specifically, the Pirates' ball security was severely lacking. Seton Hall turned the ball over 9 times, 5 of which were steals by the Red Storm. Despite 8 offensive rebounds, they could only muster 1 second chance point.
Thankfully, 8 assists from point guard Kadary Richmond and 7 points from forward Tyrese Samuel set junior Tray Jackson up for a buzzer-beating three-point shot that knotted the game at 28 headed into halftime.
The second half shooting was not much better for the Pirates but their defense thankfully stepped up. They only allowed the Red Storm to shoot 25.6% from the floor and stumped some of the New York school's top scorers.
Not only was Cale a force offensively, but he held Julian Champagnie to just 9 points on 3-14 shooting, snapping his streak of 47 consecutive games with double-digit points.
The guard has played the most games in the school's history, but Saturday may have been his shining performance.
"I think this was his best game," Willard said of Cale's showing. "I think this was his best game he's ever played just because he didn't settle to be a shooter. I thought he was aggressive, I thought he was getting to the rim, and I thought he did a phenomenal job on Champagnie-- Julian's one of the best players in the league and to have him shoot the way he did, it's a pretty good complement."
Some of the credit of Cale's great performance must be attributed to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. The Delaware product has been known to perform at his best in New York City, most notably hitting a go-ahead three-pointer late in overtime to help the Pirates upset a No. 7 Kentucky squad back in Dec. 2018.
"Even coming up to the arena, driving on the bus, you get the little chills," Cale said, raving about what is known as The Mecca of College Basketball. "You feel good and you feel like you're about to play a good game."
Graduate student Alexis Yetna was a dominant force inside, coming down with 15 rebounds to go along with his 16 points. The French forward now has 6 double-doubles on the year including 3 in his last 4 games.
"I think [Yetna] has found the groove of what Big East basketball is all about," Willard said. "He's doing a lot of junkyard dog work. I think he's playing very well defensively, he's rebounding the ball really well. I'd like to see him be a little more aggressive in the post at times, but I think he's playing like a typical high-level Big East player."
Graduate center Ike Obiagu continued to terrorize potential scorers, accumulating 7 blocks throughout the day, tying his season-high that he set in the Pirates' previous game. The center is averaging an absurd 6.25 blocks in his last 4 games.
Willard said of his Nigerian big man, "Ever since we got him back it's been a huge difference-maker in the way we play, the way he protects the rim. I think he's really rebounding the basketball better than he did earlier in the season."
Seton Hall's usual standout, senior guard Jared Rhoden, had an atypical off-day, shooting just 2-11 with 6 points. However, his impact could not be overstated, as he led the game in +/- with a +12.
"Jared's shooting has a direct correlation to us not running the stuff we were able to run in December and November for a ton of reasons," said Willard of his star player. "We got away from that and it's been hard to get back into a rhythm offensively. We haven't had much practice time. Some of the things we're running, he's getting stuck with the ball late in the shot clock and he's having to take some tough shots. So I think his struggles are kind of like our struggles where we're not as smooth as we were before our COVID pause."
After this important win, the Pirates have just one day off before they take on St. John's again on Monday in Walsh Gymnasium in the gym's first Big East game in almost 40 years. After that quick turnaround, the Pirates have another when Marquette comes into Newark on Wednesday.
Willard and co. have begun their five-day gauntlet on the right foot.