The Seton Hall Pirates went into a packed UD Arena on Wednesday night and left with a huge win, defeating the Flyers 69-64, notching their tenth win of the season. Four days before Christmas. More importantly, they now have a true road win over a quality opponent and have defeated three teams ranked in Kenpom's top 80: VCU (45), St. Joe's (64) and Dayton (76). For the unbelievably weak non-conference schedule that was shoved down our throats (of which I'm guilty of myself) before the season began, it's not looking so bad here at the end of December.
In taking their young team on the road in front of one of the toughest home court advantages in basketball, we expected seniors Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore to lead their teammates through the action tonight. While both players certainly played their part, it was sophomore Patrik Auda, who took over the game in the second half scoring 14 of the Pirates first 22 points in the opening twelve minutes. Auda repeatedly got inside on the Flyers, receiving feed-after-feed from Theodore and Pope on numerous pick and rolls. It wasn't only his offensive game that stood out tonight, Auda had to man the middle with Pope in serious foul trouble and proceeded to do an AUDAcious job, finishing with 3 blocks to add to his 18pts/3reb/2ast night. Freshman, Aaron Cosby hit his first three 3-point attempts en route to 13pts/2ast/2reb. Cosby has been a terrific spark to the starting lineup this season and can be counted on to hit two or three treys per night. He has 14 triples in his last 5 games.
Herb Pope, playing with 3PF, picked up his 4th foul with 10:29 to play and Seton Hall leading 52-47. The collective fanbase took a DEEP inhale, hoping 6-7 minutes would quickly shed off the clock with the Pirates able to keep the game in reach before his return. Well, the team kept it close for the most part, but a Chris Johnson trey pulled the Flyers within 1 with 6:53 to play. A full timeout was called from Kevin Willard, who proceeded to give the officials and earful and was instantly T'd up. As it happened, I couldn't believe what just transpired. For four years, we suffered through horrible Gonzo technicals in the most inopportune of times. Tonight, on the road, in a game the Pirates absolutely had to have, winning by a single point and 7 minutes to play, you cannot gift wrap points and any momentum that remained, for the opponent. Luckily, Chris Johnson missed one of the freebies and the good guys ran off an 8-3 run before the final media timeout of the half. Maybe Willard knew what he was doing all along and the technical lit a fire under his team to close this one out. Maybe so, but at the time, it was a situation I would have rather the team not found themselves dealing with.
Now that I've spent too many words discussing the technical foul, let me get to the positives on Kevin Willard's coaching tonight. Fire and foremost, I spent all day preaching that we needed to open with a man-to-man look and sure enough, they did. Between the M/2/M and Willard constantly in motion substituting bodies to keep the team fresh, the Pirates kept the Flyers offense at bay. Sure, the Pirates did fall back to the 2-3 zone at times and at times, Dayton exploited it, especially in the first half. At the end of the day, it was the man defense that limited UD to just 41% from the field and 27% from long range. Secondly, Willard's use of timeouts in the first half in particular were a thing of beauty. At 6:38 in the first, a Dayton jumper pulled the game within 3 and Willard used a full timeout. The team responded with a 4-0 run. Just two minutes later a Flyers 3-pointer pulled them within 3 again and once again, Willard used a full. Following the timeout, Seton Hall allowed just a layup and a buzzer-beating tip-in in the final four minutes. Kevin Willard knew how important it was to keep the UD Arena at a minimal decibel level and his use of timeouts certainly paved the way.
Herb Pope's limited play (29 minutes) prevented him from notching another double-double, but he was spectacular, for the most part, while on the floor. Finishing his night with 14pts/9reb/5ast/3blk, the thing that stood out the most to me tonight, was his distribution skills. Twice from the top of the key, Pope laid perfect entry passes into Auda for easy lay-ins. He also had his once a game, full court pass to a streaking teammate, Edwin was the beneficiary tonight. Pope's got some touch distributing the rock.
If you noticed, I led the blurb on Pope, with, "for the most part." This year, he rarely makes mistakes, so I feel like I have to point it out when he does, just to remind everybody he's still human. The first came with 30 seconds left and the Pirates leading by 5, and it wasn't even really his fault, it was on Willard for calling for JT to inbound the ball and Theodore, for getting the ball to Pope. Despite the turnaround at the line this season, there's no reason he should be going to the stripe to shoot huge throws with the game on the line. He shouldn't even be in position to receive the pass from Theo. He's got to bring his defender away from the ball and Theodore's got to find another teammate. In reality, Pope should be inbounding the ball, to Theodore, you know, the team's best free throw shooter?
After missing the front end of the one-and-one, Dayton missed their next shot attempt, which was rebounded by Pope. Herb went back to the line, still with a 5 point lead and 18 seconds to play. This time after missing the front end, Pope tried to rebound over the entire Dayton team. In doing so, he was called for a foul, his fifth, and sent Dayton the line with the clock stopped and the opportunity to pull within 3. They did and we had a ball game, once which should have been over. Luckily Theodore and Wilson each made one-of-two from the line to close this one out, but man, things got a little dicey there in the closing seconds.
After taking 18 shots against Mercer, we saw the captain, Jordan Theodore, return to his facilitating role, finding teammates throughout the night, forcing his shot less and finishing with 14pts (on an efficient 5-of-10) 8ast/4reb/stl/2to in 37 minutes of play. Theodore's defense on Kevin Dillard was huge, limiting him to just 5-of-14 from the floor. JT won the battle of the two fantastic point guards and was instrumental in seeing his team came away with the huge dub. I know we can't look past Longwood, (or can we?), but man, I can't wait to see Pope and Melo, Jordan and Scoop. Conference play begins one week from today and this team and our seniors, couldn't be more ready.
The Pirates may not crack the top 25 at this time next week, but you better believe, they'll have more believers than just one coach on the voting panel. Tonight, eyes were opened. It's up to Seton Hall come conference play to ensure they don't gradually shut.