You could feel it in the air with 7:16 left in the game. The nervousness, the tension. The oh no, not again thoughts racing. The dread.
Seton Hall had become all too familiar with the heartbreaking losses this season. They were up by seven against No. 23 Georgetown with seven minutes left, and lost by five.
They led No. 7 Connecticut by 10 points with 7:30 remaining, and then proceeded to score three points for the rest of the game to lose 61-59.
Against Dayton, the Pirates had a 14-point halftime lead, only to watch it evaporate in six minutes. The Flyers won the game 69-65.
The Pirates were cruising until suddenly, with 7:16 remaining in the final regular-season game for both teams, they found themselves up only eight, the closest the Golden Eagles had been since the 13:48 mark in the first half.
History repeating itself, right? “This is how we always lose,” senior captain and leading scorer Jeremy Hazell said.
Except, this Seton Hall team refused to lose. “We huddled up and said we can’t let this happen on Senior Night,” Hazell said.
And, they didn’t. The Pirates went on a 9-0 run to shut the door on Marquette, the NCAA Tournament bubble team that desperately needed this victory. In the end, want superseded need. Seton Hall simply wanted it more.
Make no mistake – this Pirates squad is peaking at the right time. In fact, they are a completely different team from the one we saw a week ago at Notre Dame.
Head coach Kevin Willard attributed the sudden clicking to several things: “Jeremy, in the last two games, actually stopped playing with a brace on his left hand. Herb Pope, in my opinion, is playing his best basketball of the year. Our young guys are starting to come around. We didn’t have the full complement of players, full arsenal for most of the year. It’s unfortunate, and I feel kind of bad.”
Last week, they were shooting 28.4 percent from 3-point range. In their last two games, the Pirates shot a combined 24/39 from beyond the arc. For the mathematically challenged, that comes out to 61.5 percent.
Willard believes the about-face came from better shot selection. “I think these guys, from watching a lot of film over the past couple of weeks, have seen the shots that have gotten us in trouble,” he said. “I think we’ve taken some good 3s; not just 3s, good 3s, and the right guys are shooting them. That always helps.”
However, the potential was always there. “This is what I imagined this team could be after the Alabama game,” he said. Seton Hall defeated Alabama 83-78 in the beginning of the season to start 2-1.
Key injuries to Hazell and freshman forward Patrik Auda, the transfer of sophomore forward Ferrakohn Hall, and the dismissal of senior guards Keon Lawrence and Jamel Jackson have made things tough this year.
Still, perhaps Willard’s most impressive accomplishment is how hard he got his guys to play in their final two games, especially after they’d fallen to 11-17 after three straight losses to Villanova, Marquette, and Notre Dame.
Willard clearly earned the respect and admiration of his players. In fact, Hazell even called Willard “one of us,” meaning the players. “Once he signed on to coach, he had a meeting with all of us. He lived up to what he said.”
That kind of honesty and loyalty goes both ways. “I really wish I had one or two more years with him [Willard]. He taught me a lot in one year,” Hazell said. “He’s a great addition, great coach.”
Seton Hall is obviously gelling at the right time. Can they make a run and win the Big East Tournament to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006? Hazell, who has never played in an NCAA Tournament game, said, “Definitely. One game at a time.”