by John Fanta
NEW YORK – It was only fitting that Seton Hall all but locked up its third straight NCAA Tournament berth in the Pirates’ home away from home on Saturday.
Inside Madison Square Garden, The Hall looked like the team they’ve been come BIG EAST Tournament time each of the last two years. As the senior class improved to 8-3 at The Mecca, the Pirates returned to form defensively in their third win in a row, an 81-74 overtime triumph over St. John’s.
“It’s all about getting in the right mindset of being a tough defensive team,” said Kevin Willard. “I thought we did a really good job of switching defenses on them (St. John’s). This group knows that when they defend and rebound, it’s when they’re at their best.”
The Pirates mixed match-up zone with man-to-man like they have, and made it hard for Shamorie Ponds to put up a team-high 25 points for St. John’s. The sophomore stud took 22 shots, hitting on nine of them. Charging the defensive effort against the two-time National Player of the Week was the Pirates’ defensive leader, power forward Ismael Sanogo.
“Sanogo’s defense late in the game, making Ponds take tough shots, was big,” Willard added. “We made them work.”
“It’s always great to challenge yourself,” said Sanogo of the task of guarding Ponds. “I’m always about getting better. When you play against great players (like Shamorie), you’re always getting better.”
The Hall held Ponds scoreless for the first nine minutes, and closed strongly as well. The Pirates locked down St. John’s in overtime, as the Red Storm finished 0-for-its-last-7 from the field.
The recent six-game stretch, three losses followed by three victories, illustrates the defensive shift. The Pirates allowed 92, 88, and 83 before giving up 77, 77, and 74.
While the expectation was higher than for the Pirates to start 6-7 in BIG EAST play and have to be fighting for the Big Dance ticket this time of year, the fact is a switch has gotten flipped. With that defense in place, there’s a toughness with this SHU squad. The question remains clear – Can it produce NCAA Tournament wins? The next piece to the Pirates’ 2018 puzzle arrives Wednesday in a big one when #3 Villanova visits The Roc