For 37 minutes, it looked like Kevin Willard's decision to shuffle his lineup by suspending seniors Brian Oliver and Gene Teague would pay off at an empty Prudential Center blanketed in snow.
Like most of Seton Hall's season thus far, it just wasn't to be.
A late St. John's push over the last 3:10 of play ripped Seton Hall's heart out and subsequently crushed it in one fell swoop on the eve of Valentine's Day as the Red Storm won their first game on the road at Seton Hall since the 1997-98 season in dramatic fashion late last night in Newark, 68-67. The loss was Seton Hall's third-straight and their fifth (1-5) at home in the Big East.
Energized by Kevin Willard putting his foot down by sidelining Brian Oliver and Gene Teague, Seton Hall came out of the gates playing inspired basketball. Despite a sloppy start from both teams, senior captain Fuquan Edwin (25 pts, 6 rebs, 4 stls) set the tone early on both ends of the court by pushing the ball in transition after exhibiting trademark smothering defense. St. John's didn't help the Pirates' renewed desire as the Red Storm were sloppy with the ball early and often, turning it over 19 times on the night.
"The guys played really hard," said Kevin Willard post-game on 970 AM. "I thought we did a lot of good things, I thought we rebounded the ball much better. The second half we didn't as many easy opportunities because we didn't get offensive rebounds. We got easy buckets because we got offensive rebounds in the first half and our tempo got a little slow [in the second half]."
Redshirt junior Patrik Auda (15 pts, 6 rebs), who has struggled this season since suffering a month-long layoff after reinjuring a foot that earned him a redshirt during the 2012-13 season, joined Edwin in leading the team before the break. Auda scrapped on defense and crashed the offensive boards (three first half offensive rebounds) alongside fellow CBA product Aaron Geramipoor (8 pts, 6 rebs), who played a critical career-high 24 minutes in place of Gene Teague.
"It's a confidence thing for Pat. Patty got an offensive rebound, he got a put-back, he saw the ball go in. He got another dunk on a tip-back. He got some easy buckets and he saw the ball go in and he got some confidence. He's a guy that needs to see the ball go in a little bit," diagnosed Willard. "It was good to see him play with some tenacity. I thought he played really good defense too at times."
Seton Hall committed to pushing the ball in transition and working it inside during the early goings. As a result, the Pirates' first 12 field goals came from within the paint, an unheard of stat for a team that has struggled to gain interior consistency since Gene Teague's concussion in mid-December. St. John's center Chris Obekpa (10 pts, 5 rebs) was forced to the bench at the 14:23 mark with two fouls, making Seton Hall's task of attacking the rim easier, though his sidelining can be attributed to the Pirates' tactics.
Proving their change in play was not a fluke, Seton Hall surged to a 38-31 lead with :21 to play in the first half before sloppy end-of-half play conceded a Sir'Dominic Pointer (10 pts, 6 rebs) basket in the closing seconds. Seton Hall's resurgence was highlighted by 12 offensive rebounds, two nights after hauling in just one non-team offensive board. For large stretches of the game around the halftime mark, Seton Hall was cleaning the offensive glass at a nearly 50% clip. On the tail end of the break, St. John's flipped the script by also committing themselves to attacking the hoop, their strength, and ran out to the tune of an 11-4 run (15-4 when including the last :48 of the first half).
The burst mirrored the Red Storm's rout-like surge from their meeting with Seton Hall at Carnesecca Arena last month and gave St. John's their first lead since the score sat at 14-13. The left jab put Seton Hall on the ropes for the first time on the night. Proving their worth, the home team responded by regaining the lead 52-51 at the under-12 media timeout by way of a pair of three-pointers from who other than Fuquan Edwin and Patrik Auda (5-17 from 3pt prior to game).
Continuing to swing the tempo in their favor, a St. John's specialty, the Johnnies hit Seton Hall with an uppercut in the form of an 8-1 run after the under-12 until Kevin Willard was granted a timeout under the 8-minute mark. Trailing 59-53, Seton Hall's newfound bounce was once again put to the test. On every Seton Hall's fan mind was the consistent inability to execute coming out of timeouts, a staple of their season thus far. This time, Brandon Mobley (6 pts) was found open in St. John's zone at the free throw line and hit a contested jumper as Jaren Sina (3 pts) ran baseline and found himself open in the far corner.
59-55 St. John's. 1-0 Willard.
Coming out of the under-8 timeout at the next stoppage, Willard and his team were again run through the gauntlet. Rysheed Jordan (10 pts) sunk a pair of free throws before Seton Hall's ensuing possession that saw Jaren Sina handling the rock at the top of the arc, largely unguarded. A sharpshooter that once put on a show in front of Jeremy Hazell at Walsh Gym while playing at Gill St. Bernard's took advantage of the sagging defense and nailed a three-pointer with the help of a friendly rim.
61-58 St. John's. 2-0 Willard.
Trailing by three, Seton Hall played smothering defense in the defensive half court for what seemed like the fifth-straight possession, and the ball was thrown out to Sina who found himself on a 2-on-1 situation with Edwin. As we've seen quite a few times this season, the freshman guard played beyond his years and unthinkably turned around and walked the ball back out to the three-point line. Not much time passed before Edwin was found open, who then drove to the hoop in front of the Seton Hall bench and was fouled in the act while Chris Obekpa was called for goaltending on the shot attempt, one of four times on the night. Sweating senior leadership, Edwin drained both free throws cooly.
All three plays, which surely would not have been made earlier this season, spurred a 7-2 Seton Hall run that was aided by tough team defense. Now leading 67-63 with 3:10 to play, it seemed as though the Pirates had finally erased a season full of missed opportunities and circumstances.
With a heart as cold as the Newark streets outside, an NCAA-caliber St. John's team pulled the alarm and clamped down on a Seton Hall offense that Kevin Willard would later describe as a "fire drill" over the closing three minutes.
On consecutive possessions after two Sir'Dominic Pointer free throws and a JaKarr Sampson (9 pts, 4 rebs, 4 asts) dunk, Sterling Gibbs (8 pts, 2 asts) missed the front-end of a 1-and-1 and then forced a tough shot in the lane that was blocked after taking his defender off the dribble. After a missed St. John's shot with :50 on the clock and the game tied at 67, Willard looked keen on letting his boys play before being granted a timeout halfway into the shot clock. The decision cancelled out what would have been a forced 2-for-1, if pursued.
With :27 on the clock, Fuquan Edwin attempted a straight away three-ball from a hand off that just missed. The shot attempt was arguably less creative than set plays prior to it, but ultimately not a bad shot from your senior leader that nearly doubled any other player's point total on the night. Coming out of a timeout and with :19 to work with, Rysheed Jordan looked set on turning the ball over outside the arc late in the game clock before threading the needle with a game-winning pass down low to Chris Obekpa, who was intelligently fouled from behind by Aaron Geramipoor.
As just under three seconds sat on the clock and a 40.7% foul shooter stood at the line, Obekpa calmly sunk his first free throw, and with it, Seton Hall. Obekpa would then miss the second attempt intentionally before blocking Brandon Mobley's baseline inbound pass with 1.5 seconds remaining that resembled the end-game scenario at Carnesecca Arena. Mobley's second attempt at a full-court heave was also unsuccessful, sealing a win paved with St. John's NCAA dreams.