Powered by a pair of local stars, resurgent Seton Hall is on the cusp of Big East Tournament glory

Powered by a pair of local stars, resurgent Seton Hall is on the cusp of Big East Tournament glory

NEW YORK — Behind the skills of their New York-raised backcourt of Isaiah Whitehead and Khadeen Carrington, the Seton Hall program is reaching heights the program hasn’t seen in decades.

The Pirates advanced to the Big East Tournament final with a sloppy, contentious 87-83 victory over Xavier that saw a combined 41 turnovers and four technical fouls. The Pirates ran away from the Musketeers early and held on down the stretch, taking a 41-30 halftime lead and never allowing it to get closer than four in the final twenty minutes. To build the margin at the break, Seton Hall leaned on Carrington (14 first-half points) and Xavier mistakes (scoring 15 points off 13 Musketeer turnovers). Xavier couldn’t find the range all night, shooting just 35% from the field and missing 10 of 27 free throws attempts.

“This is what we came to Seton Hall for,” said Carrington after the game. “This is what we talked about before we even came here, getting Seton Hall back on the map back to where it was. I think we're doing a great job of it right now.”

Whitehead, a unanimous selection to the All-Big East first team, and Carrington combined for 43 points, the second night in a row that the duo put on a show. Thursday’s quarterfinal saw them withstand a Creighton charge by combining for 51 points, 15 boards and 7 assists in an 81-73 victory. The 27 points against the Bluejays was a career high for Carrington.

Whitehead and Carrington — both hailing from Brooklyn — are complemented by Bronx native Desi Rodriguez at forward. Angel Delgado (from the Dominican Republic) is the only starter that hails from farther away than nearby Newark, New Jersey, the hometown of Ismael Sanogo. All five starters are sophomores, a youth movement gone right, powering the Pirates to a 24-8 record, their most victories in a season since winning 28 in 1993.

Friday night’s victory was another positive stride in Kevin Willard’s rebuilding project after the dismissal of former coach Bobby Gonzalez in 2010. The Pirates were incredibly young last season and that inexperience showed down the stretch. After starting out with a 13-3 record, they cratered on their way to a 16-15 finish, missing the postseason entirely and losing upperclassmen Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs to transfers in the process. But leaning on those freshmen who are now the core of this team paid off: Seton Hall will be making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2006. But first there’s the matter of trying to go out winners in the Big East Tournament for the first time in 23 years.

“We were puppies last year,” said Willard after the game. “But now we’re dogs. I wouldn't want to play the five guys that are out there on the court. They stick together. Someone gets knocked down, the other four guys are right there.”

They will face Villanova, the reigning tournament champs and three-time defending regular season winners. The Wildcats took down Providence 76-68 in Friday’s first semifinal, holding Friars forward Ben Bentil to 3 points after his 38-point eruption in the quarterfinals. Seton Hall knocked out Villanova on a buzzer beater in this tournament two years ago, but lost both games to the Wildcats during the regular season, by one point at home and nine points on the road. It will be a long night for the Pirates if they turn it over 25 times (as they did Friday versus Xavier) against Jay Wright’s experienced squad, but the challenge is also a huge opportunity.

“They're a great team,” Whitehead said about Villanova. “They're tough. I mean, they have a lot of weapons that can beat you. They shoot the three really well. It's going to be a great game. I'm looking forward to it. I just can't wait for it.”

“It still hasn't hit me, to be perfectly honest with you,” Willard said after the game. “To be playing in the Big East Championship in the Mecca in New York City on Saturday night. I think these guys are starting to understand the greatness of this tournament.”

Xavier’s Big East Tournament ended in disappointment for the third time in as many attempts since joining the conference prior to the 2013-2014 season. Last year was a title game loss to Villanova, with the season before ending in the semifinals after a deluge of threes from Doug McDermott and Creighton. Chris Mack’s team will still receive a high seed come Selection Sunday and has every chance to make a run at the program’s first Final Four.