(Neil Miller / Sportsday Wire)
The Seton Hall Pirates have waited a long time to get back to prominence, and this was the year it all came together.
The Pirates remained committed to Head Coach Kevin Willard despite not reaching the NCAA Tournament in his five years at the helm.
The Hall’s administration faced a lot of pressure to fire Willard after they fell apart at the end of last season.
Willard entered this year knowing it was put-up-or-shut-up time and that he had to put it together with his very talented, young nucleus of Isaiah Whitehead from Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School, Angel Delgado, and Desi Rodriguez of The Bronx.
Whitehead put up some big numbers this season: 18.2 points, 5.1 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game. Delgado averaged 10.1 points and 9.5 rebounds, and Rodriguez averaged 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
On Saturday night, the Pirates were taking on top-seeded Villanova in the Big East Tournament Championship Game.
The Hall came out strong, and opened up an eight-point lead, 25-17, halfway through the first half, when Ismael Sanogo put back a layup. They built that lead up to 14 points, 39-25, on a Derrick Gordon layup with 2:59 left in the first half, and led 40-29 at the half.
In the second half, Seton Hall led by 10 early, 48-38, but Villanova responded with a 12-2 run to tie the game at 50 on a Kris Jenkins three with 9:22 left.
Ismael Sanogo got to line at the 8:06 mark and made two free throws to make it 52-50 Seton Hall. That was the start of a 5-0 run and they didn’t relinquish the lead until Jenkins hit a three with just 52 seconds left to give Villanova a 67-64 lead.
It all came down to Whitehead. He made one of two free throws with 42 seconds left, then he made a layup and was fouled with 18 seconds left. After he hit the free throw to complete the three-point play, Seton Hall led 68-67.
Whitehead said of what was going on in his mind when he had the three-point play, “This whole year Coach has been raving about just making winning plays and making winning plays. I really just attacked the basket. I felt I had an opportunity to score the ball. I mean, I saw Kris Jenkins coming over and I knew that he wouldn’t be able to get in position fast enough for me to draw a charge. I just tried to lay it in on him.”
Villanova wasn’t done yet, as Jenkins missed a three with 11 seconds left, Josh Hart got the offensive rebound, and missed a layup with five seconds left.
Angel Delgado was fouled with three seconds left. He made the first free throw and missed the second one on purpose, preventing Villanova a quality chance to win it.
Seton Hall upset Villanova 69-67 to win the Big East Tournament championship for the first time since 1993.
Whitehead led Seton Hall with 26 points on 11-21 from the field, 2-7 on threes, with three assists and two rebounds. Rodriguez had 12 points, three rebounds and an impressive four steals. Delgado had eight points and seven rebounds.
Whitehead was the MVP of the tournament, and he said of that, “This is an amazing accomplishment. I mean, if you look down the line at MVPs in the Big East, it’s some real big-time names down there. So just to have my name on there is an amazing feeling.”
Whitehead said of envisioning this when he committed to Seton Hall, “Definitely. Me and Khadeen (Carrington) talked about it before. Me and Khadeen was talking about it before. Before I committed — actually he committed before me. He really tried to string me along. I really went for it. He said they have a great group of coaches here, and that could get us better and hopefully win a Big East championship.”
Whitehead said of what this meant to him as a New Yorker to play such a great game for a New York area team in New York, “I mean, it’s a great accomplishment. It’s an amazing feeling. This is one of the main reasons I chose to stay home, just so my friends and family could see me play as much as possible and having them in the crowd and really cheering me on and seeing me hold up the trophy at the end. It’s like picture-perfect.”
Ismael Sanogo is a New Jersey native and he said of what it means to him leading Seton Hall to the Big East title and the NCAA Tournament, “It’s like a dream come true. Who would have ever thought a kid from Newark would make it to play at Seton Hall and make it into the NCAA and win a Big East championship. I’m telling you now I sure didn’t. I didn’t think I was going to be this far in life right now. I’m just so glad that Coach gave me an opportunity to play here. I want to thank him and the coaching staff.”
Seton Hall Head Coach Kevin Willard said of the start they had and some of the adjustments made when Villanova went on that second half run, “I knew we would come out pretty good. We were pretty focused this morning at breakfast and the walk-through. With these guys sometimes you can tell a lot. We talked at halftime that they were going to make a run on us. I really think it was important the way the Creighton game went the other night. We had pretty much the same thing. We had to battle back. So I think Ish (Sanogo) said it at the under 6 or under 8 was we’ve been through this before; we know what’s going to happen. Let’s just get some stops. And they did it.”
Willard said of how disappointed he was , if at all, when the Hall was picked seventh in the pre-season, “I thought I was actually excited. I thought we were going to be eighth or ninth. Everyone saw how the year ended last year. I don’t think we talked about it. Our focus — again, when you start five sophomores and come off the bench with two freshmen and one senior, our whole focus this year was just trying to get better game by game. We talked about that after the Creighton game, after the Xavier game. We weren’t happy this morning. We talked about things we had to do better in our press offense. Just trying to get better. The pre-season is tough, what? We just never talked about it. This is a weird group. You just don’t — they don’t care.”
Willard said of how it feels to be mentioned listed right up there with P.J. Carlesimo now as Big East champion, “I didn’t shave. I didn’t shave this morning. I looked in the mirror. It’s always a scary thought. And I said I wasn’t going to shave for Coach.
“Coach Carlesimo texts me or calls me every week since I got the job. He’s such a great supporter of Seton Hall. He’s obviously the bar that was set and the job that he did. But it’s funny, we always talk. We played Baltrusol (Golf Club) this summer. You play golf with Coach Carlesimo, it’s painful. He talks the whole time. You can’t hit shots. He’s all over the place. You’re trying to putt and he’s got ideas. He’s yipping and yapping.
“But we were talking and we were on 17, it’s a par-5. He was in the woods. He came out of the woods and he goes, ‘You’re having the same trajectory that I did.’ He said, ‘I struggled for five mighty years.’ He said, ‘You have the same support that I have.’ Obviously, he had Coach (Richie) Regan. I have Pat Lyons. I’m lucky I have the best athletic director in the business. And I’m lucky to have the job that I have. But to be up there with Coach Carlesimo this summer when we played Baltrusol, I just don’t have to take everything that I have to take from him on the green, so I’m looking forward to that.”