Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel followed Seton Hall as it tried to win five games in five days in the Big East tournament. The Pirates fell short as Wetzel reports.
NEW YORK – Bobby Gonzalez had asked his team to do one thing against the more talented, deeper and well-rested Syracuse Orange – fight.
When the teams met in December, Syracuse ran Seton Hall out of the Carrier Dome, scoring 100 points on it in what was as much a layup drill as a basketball game. "They embarrassed us," Gonzo said.
Since then though, the Pirates, thin with just eight scholarship players and painfully young with just one senior, had turned their season around with a commitment to toughness.
So as he paced in front of his team before the game Wednesday in a Madison Square Garden locker room, he talked about how they had to show the Orange times had changed.
"They're going to realize they're in a street fight," he said, his team of mostly New York City players eating it up.
Less than four minutes into the second half, with the score tight and the Garden rocking, an actual street fight almost broke out.
After Syracuse's Arinze Onuaku blocked a shot from Seton Hall's John Garcia, Onuaku clapped his hands in Garcia's face. Garcia swatted the hands away and things got heated. A double technical was called.
On the next play Syracuse's Kristof Ongenaet went in for a layup and was decked by Seton Hall's Brandon Walters. A scrum ensued and there was pushing, shoving, shouting and lots of other old-time Big East basketball activity.
"They're going to look around and say, 'This isn't the team we beat in December. I don't know what happened, but this team has an iron will,' " Gonzo had predicted before the game.
This wasn't what he meant or wanted, of course.
The technical on Garcia put him on the bench in foul trouble, and the entire back-and-forth fired up Syracuse. The Orange started draining threes and rolled to an 89-74 victory.
"It definitely hurt us more than it hurt them," Gonzo said. "We lost Garcia. They're so deep they don't worry about losing anyone. They're like Noah's Ark; they have two of everything."
The loss was tough to take, but the line in the sand was drawn. Seton Hall wasn't backing down Wednesday, and it isn't backing down going forward.
Seton Hall was trying the impossible, winning five games in five days to advance to the NCAA tournament. That run could have included beating four ranked teams in the toughest league in America. Yahoo! Sports decided to tag along with the Pirates as they attempted it. The challenge of making it through that gauntlet – as well as this series of columns – ends with the loss to No. 18 Syracuse. No Pirate wanted to lose, but the experience wasn't a failure.
"I think this tournament and what we did this year will help us take the next step next year," Gonzalez said.
He returns all but one contributor from a 17-win team and has four talented players sitting out. He thinks he can close the talent gap on the top half of the conference.
He already has the toughness.
"I was happy with the heart and the courage we showed," he said. "I think this is a springboard."
After the game in the subdued locker room, the talk was about the back-to-back skirmishes. Both teams had hugged it out after the game, so the hard feelings were gone. Mostly it was Garcia blaming himself for getting the technical that effectively took the team's best big man out of the game.
"I take responsibility," he said. "I can't let my emotions get away from me. I definitely feel like I cost us the game."
His teammates disagreed. The Pirates are mostly city kids, and standing your ground when someone taunts you like that is generally acceptable behavior. This was the Big East tournament, not a playground, but they understood it happens. It was the kind of thing this tournament was founded on.
After the game Gonzo channeled his John Wooden and reminded everyone that "failure is never fatal."
He's lobbying for an NIT bid, and by the time he had climbed aboard the team bus parked on 8th Avenue, he already had assigned an assistant to make up a positive-plays DVD to show the team next week when they return to campus from spring break.
"We want them pumped up about what they accomplished," he said.
He took a rare moment of silence as the bus pulled away from MSG and contemplated the game. It had gotten away late, but Syracuse had to earn it.
"We gave them a game, didn't we?" he asked. "They knew they were in the game. They knew Seton Hall was here."
When you're trying to build a program in the most cutthroat, competitive conference in America, sometimes that's enough.