by John Fanta
NEWARK — It was a night with huge implications and high emotions. The senior class that transformed Seton Hall into an NCAA Tournament team was getting honored, but there was a game to win. Plus, half of that unit — Desi Rodriguez and Ismael Sanogo, both battered with ankle injuries — was injured. A loss, and the Pirates would be staring at what the program used to call the norm – playing on the first night of the BIG EAST Tournament.
With the pressure and bright lights on them, though, Khadeen Carrington and Angel Delgado did what they’ve done 82 times before in their careers – rise to the occasion and charge Seton Hall to a win. The duo combined for 46 points in a 77-70 win over Butler, giving the Pirates the #3 seed in the BIG EAST Tournament and setting up a Thursday quarterfinal rematch with the Dawgs at 9:30 PM ET.
It was a game that saw seven ties and six lead changes, but a vintage set of winning plays closed the deal for the Pirates (21-10, 10-8 BE). After a Nate Fowley lay-in cut Butler’s deficit to 52-48 with 8:09 on the clock, Carrington shifted into another gear. The Brooklyn native hesitated at the key to get Kamar Baldwin to miss, then flew in for a one-hand jam. Following a Kelan Martin turnover, Carrington launched a three, drilling it to send the lead to nine and The Rock into a frenzy.
The game’s next turning point came just three minutes later. Martin, who was sensational with 35 points, laid the ball in to cut the Pirates’ edge to four again. After a Kevin Willard timeout, Carrington dished the ball to Delgado, who hammered a 15-foot elbow jumper home to push the lead back to 60-54 with 4:25 remaining. Butler closed within three again, but the Pirates strung stops together and Carrington put the dagger in the Dawgs. His third triple of the night with 1:03 remaining left no doubt, raising the lead to 69-59.
“It’s who they are,” said Willard about Delgado and Carrington leading the way. “It’s what they’ve done their whole career here. They have made countless big plays for us. My wife and I actually watched one of their BIG EAST games as freshmen on Friday night. It was almost comical watching them play that game. They’ve come so far, and done so much for this program.”
As much as those winning plays provided an ovation from the 9,743 in attendance, perhaps the night’s most dramatic moments came before tip-off. To see tears coming down Willard and his seniors’ faces put it into perspective — the bond they share can’t be touched.
“That was the best Senior Night I’ve ever been a part of by far,” said Willard. “Not only was the win huge, the emotions, and the fans showing their appreciation – I thought it was very special.”
Willard followed that up by talking about this senior class, and the quote, while lengthy, speaks volumes from a guy who is not typically long-winded:
“I will miss them dearly. But I think that’s the great thing they’ve done here. They’ll never be gone. Every recruit we have that comes and watches those guys, they walk away thinking, ‘I can’t believe how hard those guys work. I can’t believe how much fun those guys have.’ They’ve laid a great foundation for the guys sitting out and the young guys. So even though their bodies won’t be here, they’ve passed along what it takes to win at this level.”
“They are like my oldest sons. I’ve been with them for six years, technically. I spend more time with them for eight months than I do my own family. As you sit there and have such a feeling of pride because you watch them grow and you feel proud for what they’ve accomplished, proud of the men they’ve become, the decisions they’re making. They are graduating and two of them are going to be the first to graduate out of their families. So many emotions go through you when you’ve been with the players this long.”
Injury Update: Willard believes he will have Rodriguez (left ankle) back for Thursday’s quarterfinal against Butler. As for Sanogo, who is also out with a left ankle injury, Willard is “not as optimistic as Ish is, but I don’t count him out.” Sanogo believes that he can give it a go on Thursday. The extra day of rest for the quarterfinal certainly helps.
After working out this morning, Desi Rodriguez told Willard that he could give him 5-10 minutes in Saturday night’s game. “I didn’t want to take the risk of him hurting his other foot, re-hurting his foot, or going 0-for-3 and ruining a terrific year he’s had offensively,” said Willard.
Butler in the Quarters: Willard is happy with the thought of drawing Butler in the quarterfinals. “It’s better than playing someone like Creighton,” the eighth-year head coach said. “And I mean that by we haven’t seen Creighton since the seventh game, so from a scouting standpoint and the guys knowing what we’re doing, we can really have four days and work on us and understanding what we’re going against. For Butler it helps and for us it helps.”
Up Next: Again, the Pirates and Dawgs meet again Thursday at approximately 9:30 PM ET inside The World’s Most Famous Arena. Butler is 0-4 in the BIG EAST Tournament, including a one-point loss in 2014 to Seton Hall. The Pirates won the crown two years ago, and advanced to the semifinals last year. Watch the game on FS1, and follow @John_Fanta and @NCAAHoopsDigest for coverage all week from MSG.