The Seton Hall Pirates' season came to an unceremonious and deflating close as The Hall was blown out of the water in their first-round March Madness matchup with TCU. Mike Miles Jr. led the game with 21 points as the Horned Frogs sunk the Pirates with conviction, 69-42 on Friday.
A game fans thought would be an evenly-matched, 8 vs. 9 seed bout between two physical teams turned into a one-sided, nationally-televised beat down at Viejas Arena on San Diego State University's campus.
The matchup started fairly slow for both sides, as by the game's sixth minute only 10 total points had been scored. It was a purely defensive slugfest until the TCU offense hit their stride.
The Horned Frogs started poking holes in The Hall's defense by the ten-minute mark in the first half, and burst out to a lead as large as 13 before the half's close. By the time the halftime horn sounded, the Frogs from the Big 12 entered the locker room with a 30-21 lead, a nine-point lead that the Pirates were thankful was just nine.
In the game's final 20 minutes, the TCU momentum snowballed into a full-on rout in front of 11,000 fans at the San Diego arena. Miles decided to take over, finishing with 21 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists, a performance that was accentuated by Damion Baugh's 14-point, 5-rebound, 6-assist performance.
It was the Horned Frogs' defense, however, that set them apart from the Pirates.
"You've got to give TCU credit," said head coach Kevin Willard. "I thought they were much more physical than us. I thought they got into us really early in the game, kind of shook us, to be honest with you. And then they did a great job of when [Kadary Richmond] was out and [Jamir Harris] was in, of really turning up the heat in the half court defense. And I thought that really we hadn't seen that defensive pressure all year."
29% shooting from the field and from behind the arc are not numbers that will win games, especially when the opponent shoots 51% from the floor and 40% from three. In the second half alone, the TCU hit 59.3% of their shots and knocked down 75% of their shots from deep.
In arguably their worst offensive performance of the season, the Pirates could only muster 42 total points, 21 in each half. Myles Cale and Jamir Harris had 11 points each, while no other Pirate could even crack 6. Jared Rhoden, Seton Hall's leading scorer for the season, only had 5 before fouling out with 12:55 remaining in the game.
For a player like Rhoden who has poured so much passion and effort to this program to go out like that is heartbreaking.
"Just the culture, the family life, the development here. I think it's unlike no other that I've ever had," said Rhoden when asked what he will miss most about the program. "I feel like I came here as a young boy and I'm leaving as a man. And the development and the things that Seton Hall has instilled in me, amazing people like Coach Willard, something I'll never forget. And changed me as a man the rest of my life."
Cale echoed this sentiment.
"I would say the culture also, just the things that I took away from here," Cale said. "I came here a boy and left here a man. And Coach Willard did a good job just coaching me for five years. And every years was very special to me. Nothing but love when I think about Seton Hall."
The story of this year's Pirates' team: adversity.
After starting 9-1 in non-conference play, a 17-day pause thanks to COVID-19 put a halt on the Pirates' season and threw them incredibly out of sorts. After losing their last game of December, they went a disappointing 3-5 in January before bouncing back and going 6-2 in February.
"All I can say is I'm really proud of what this team did this year," head coach Kevin Willard said. "Overcoming some of the things we had to overcome, really bouncing back when times got hard. I'm proud of this group. Again, this is not the way you want to end anything. It's a really bad way to end it. That's not going to stop me from looking back and saying all the things that we've got accomplished and all the things these kids did and overcame. So you lose by 1 or 27, it's the same thing."
However, as has been the story in past seasons under Willard, the postseason success has not come easily.
Aside from a Big East Tournament Championship in 2016 and a championship appearance in 2019, the Pirates have had limited success when it matters, and in six NCAA Tournament appearances during Willard's tenure, the Pirates have produced one win, which was followed by a swift elimination to a No. 1-seeded Kansas team in 2018.
The Pirates were outclassed and outcoached in San Diego on Friday. Is change due?
"I'll give you exactly what I can tell you," Willard said of his possible departure. "I have an agent who I haven't talked to yet. I haven't talked to. I don't know who he's talking to. I have absolutely no idea. But when I get home I'll talk to my agent and discuss things with my agent."
Willard's former assistant at both Iona and at The Hall, Shaheen Holloway, a Seton Hall alumnus himself, has had great success as head coach at St. Peter's University and pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in March Madness history on Thursday when his 15-seeded Peacocks took down No. 2 seed Kentucky.
Many believe Holloway is the most fitting replacement for Willard should he choose to go elsewhere.
Willard said of Holloway possibly being next in line for the Seton Hall job, "I'll be honest with you. If I'm not here next year, I'd love if Shaheen Holloway is here, that would be the happiest thing to happen to me."