If you were to tell me before the game that the Syracuse fans would be making a mad dash for the exits with 6 minutes remaining, I wouldn't be surprised. Darnell Gatling minutes? Yeah, why not. Let the senior record a few minutes at the 'Cuse in garbage time. The Orange were coming off a home loss to Villanova and a road loss to Pittsburgh. To make matters worse, the Pirates were coming off a home loss to intrastate rival Rutgers. They left any postseason aspirations on their home floor last Saturday. This is a squad that has been largely uncompetitive on the road against good competition. They failed to record a quality win twenty games into the season. Until the twenty-first game, that is. What transpired tonight wasn't just a quality win. It was epic. Yes, it was epic. No, it wasn't the #1 team in the country, but it doesn't matter. Kevin Willard notched his first marquee win in an absolute trashing of the #9 Syracuse Orange. At the Carrier Dome. Where the Pirates previously won only 4 times in their last 25 attempts. If nothing else goes Seton Hall's way the rest of the season, thank you Pirates. Thank You Kevin Willard. And Thank You, Bigg Game Hazell, for leaving us one more memory of absolute dominance in the Seton Hall blue-and-white.
Jeremy 'BIGG GAME' Hazell is not a human being. After his DePaul return, he did look human in his last three games as he put forth sub-Jeremy performances in each one. However, at least twice tonight, he stopped and yelled to anybody that would listen, "I'm Bacccccck!!!!" on his way to 28PTS on 10-of-17 (5-of-10 3PT) shooting to go along with 9REB/4AST/4STL. Oh, he's back, indeed. Jeremy hit multiple 3PT attempts from 35-38 feet. He figured out how to single-handedly dominate the feared Syracuse 2-3 zone. Just shoot it from 40 feet. To steal a line from our friends over at The Uconn Blog, we have Jeremy Hazell and you don't. Apologies to Kemba. A month ago tonight, Jeremy Hazell was getting shot in Harlem, NY and literally running for his life. Tonight, he shot the LIGHTS out of the rafters at the Carrier Dome and left the Orange faithful the ones running for the exits. It was actually a mad dash. With 6+ minutes remaining. I've never seen anything like it, never seen the 10th ranked team in the nation host a 50-yard dash for their fans with so much time remaining.
Kevin Willard deserves all the praise in world after notching his signature victory at Syracuse in his first season as head coach of the Pirates. First, he manned up following the Rutgers loss and put all the blame on himself. He owned up for failing to prepare his team. He put all the blame on his shoulders for the terrible offense, lazy defense and clueless inbounding plays. Well, his players responded tonight. So much for that disconnect between players and coach. His players showed up and played 40-minutes in a season that was all but lost many, many games ago.
The coaching tonight was brilliant. Seton Hall built an early 10-2 lead and Willard did his best in protecting the lead. He rode his starters to over 30MPG a piece. His rotations and use of Aaron Geramipoor spelling Herb Pope from the very beginning of the game was methodical. Willard was getting AG in the game for a few minutes at a the time, allowing Pope to stay fresh throughout. He called timeouts immediately when the Orange looked as if they were readying to spark a run. He even called timeout with a media timeout coming at the next stoppage in the first half. The Pirates had just run a terrible offensive possession, followed by an all too easy Rick Jackson powerful dunk at the opposite end. Willard used his own timeout even though he had the media TO looming. The SOJ followers on twitter questioned me for applauding the move, but it was obvious to me. Willard refused to let the Orange build anything resembling the beginning of a run and just as importantly, he did his best in preventing the Orange faithful in finding something to cheer about. Again, it was nothing short of a brilliant job by Coach Willard.
Jordan Theodore turned the ball over 5 times, coming off a performance against Rutgers where he turned the ball over 4 times. Yes, that's too many, but, these two performances were night-and-day. Despite the turnovers, it was probably the best game of Theodore's career. He finished with 19PTS/7AST/6REB on 7-of-10 shooting while hitting all 3 of his long-distance attempts. I know the turnovers say otherwise, but JT really played intelligently down the stretch, milking the shot-clock late in the game with a large lead before penetrating, hitting J's or finding his teammates. We saw Jeremy rush a possession in the same situation, but Theodore really controlled the tempo and was a true extension of Willard on the floor, as the PG effectively is supposed to portray. When Hazell is on AND he has a second teammate step up, watch out, this team can beat any team in the conference.
The Herb Pope and Jeff Robinson tandem contributed their consistent night-in and night-out efforts tonight. Pope finished with 10PTS/8REB/2STL/2AST/2BLK, while Robinson added 12PTS/7REB/2STL/2AST/2BLK. Neither player turned the ball over. They each only took one 3-point attempt and fought for loose balls and finished strong throughout the night. Pope even finished a dunk while being fouled, which I believe, was the first time he's done so all season. All around, a great night for the bigs, who for the most part packed the paint and stayed off of the perimeter.
Fuquan Edwin, snapped out of his shooting slump, converting 6-of-9 from the floor which consisted of jump shots, lay-ups and even a runner or two. Despite turning the ball over 5X like his PC teammate, he did add 3REB/3BLK and a STL as he was completely fired up to start the second half blocking Kris Joseph's first shot attempt to keep the momentum running high for the Hall. Oh remember, Kris Joseph proclaimed that nobody in the conference could guard him? Well, the freshman did a damn good job at limiting him (in meaningful minutes) tonight. Get to know him, Kris.
Lastly, Keon Lawrence in a bench role was fantastic for a stretch in the second half. Lawrence converted two layups on consecutive Seton Hall possessions as the Pirates traded buckets with the Orange as they began to make a couple jump shots. Although it was just 4PTs, the pair of layups assisted in preventing the Orange from sparking their usual second half run. In 17 minutes played, Keon finished with 4PT/4REB/STL. As I've been saying all season, that's all we need from him. Take care of the ball, hit the boards, steal one here or there from the opposition's unsuspecting big men (as he did in the first half on Rick Jackson) and play tough defense. Job well done, Keon.
The Pirates improved to 3-6 in the conference tonight in what will likely be Kevin Willard's signature win in his first-year as head coach of Seton Hall. They did tonight what they failed to do Saturday. They provided a little joy for the fanbase in what has been nothing short of a nightmare season. Of course, it's a greater joy than defeating Rutgers, but we aren't complaining. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, this team will not make the NCAA tournament. It took them 21 games to record a quality win. The beauty of it all is we don't even have to go there at this point. Let's just enjoy it for what it is, for as bleak as the future looked we witnessed a glimpse of hope for the future of the program. Your Seton Hall Pirates DOMINATED the #9 Syracuse Orange on the road. Let that sink in. Go to bed, wake up and read the headlines. It wasn't a dream and it's not a typo. Dominated.