Playing three to five weeks ahead of schedule and for the only time this season, New Jersey's two prominent college basketball programs (minus FDU, of course), met Sunday evening with the Pirates leaving the RAC victorious, 77-71. While both teams struggled mightily to date, it was evident that the Turnpike Tussle still meant plenty to these clubs. From the opening tip, there was a little extra on display, chasing down opponents to contest breakaways, skying for highlight-reel blocks (hello Brian Oliver), throwing the opposition to the floor (again, Brian Oliver), while diving for loose balls and even dead balls (hello Haralds Karlis). After playing in front of sparse crowds at the Rock, Brooklyn and Mercer, Seton Hall also played in front of the most energized crowd they've seen to date.
While Seton Hall was aggressive on both ends, they didn't exactly play crisp, well-executed basketball throughout the first twenty minutes. There were far too many possessions where the Pirates were stagnant with basketball in hand, often failing to run a play before last-second, clock expiring, attempts. There were countless ball security issues, to the tune of 11 first-half turnovers and only 6 assists, however, it wasn't all doom-n-gloom. Gene Teague went beast mode as he hung seven points, seven rebounds and FIVE steals on the Knights before intermission. Sterling Gibbs put his teammates on his shoulders with 15 points on five made field goals knowing full well without Edwin and Auda, he would have to contribute in areas other than the stripe.
Leading by nine with just over seven minutes remaining, Brian Oliver (11pts, 3-of-8 3PT) cleared out Junior Etou for a defensive rebound, unfortunately, the rules state you can't throw a player to the ground by his neck. The officials made the right call in tossing Oliver and awarding Rutgers an intentional foul. It's not the first time we've seen an intentional foul called on Oliver, and likely not the last. There's really no excuse for it, especially at this point in his career, however upon leaving the court of play Oliver grabbed each of his teammates in an attempt to fire them up before hitting the showers. Making the best out of a bad situation was nice to see.
The Knights were able to ride the momentum of the ejection to close within 4, before Stephane Manga answered with a 3-point play of his own (5:48). With Brandon Mobley, Stephane Manga and Gene Teague (16pts/16reb/4ast/5stl/7to) all in foul trouble and short Brian Oliver, the Pirates once again were faced with having to close out an opponent in the final minutes. Brandon Mobley fouled out while hitting a jump shooter behind the arc, the THIRD time the Pirates committed such an offense tonight. A 10-0 Rutgers run would see the Pirates lead shrink to a single point with just over a minute remaining. And then, Sterling, Sterling Gibbs ya'll.
The Pirates point guard (27pts/4reb/4ast) played with supreme confidence in the final minute, urging on his teammates defensively while pleading for the ball on the other end. Gibbs came through, protecting the basketball and making four free throws down the stretch to ice the game. As impressive as Gibbs was, it might have all gone for naught if not for Haralds Karlis' hustle play to secure the victory for the Pirates.
Nursing a 3-point lead with 30 seconds remaining, Gibbs missed a jumper, which appeared to give Rutgers a final shot to force overtime. Karlis would have none of it as he skied over his man without committing an over-the-back foul (nearly impossible to do in that situation), and tipped the basketball out. If that weren't enough, Karlis chased the ball down as it was headed toward the sideline, corralled the rebound and put it in Gibbs hands while diving out of bounds. It was beautiful and it was the play of the night, hands down.
With that, Seton Hall is STILL the team to beat in New Jersey. Other than FDU, of course.