Seton Hall chasing history in NIT basketball semifinal vs. Georgia

The last time Seton Hall basketball won the National Invitation Tournament, in 1953, a record-sized crowd of 18,500 turned out at Madison Square Garden to watch the Pirates beat St. John’s for the title. That was more than double the attendance at the NCAA Tournament final, won by Indiana over Kansas.

College basketball fans were left to debate which team was better. Seton Hall ended up ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press’s final poll, behind the Hoosiers. St. John’s was seventh.

“You have to be pretty elderly at this point to remember the teams that came to New York City for the NIT were the cream of the crop,” Henry Cooper said last week.

Cooper, now 92, started at forward for the Pirates for most of that 31-2 campaign. This week, as Seton Hall heads into the NIT semifinals for the first time in 71 years – Tuesday’s game against Georgia tips at 9:30 p.m. on ESPN2, after Indiana State and Utah in the other semi – the tournament is long-established as a consolation to the NCAA’s. But that doesn’t render it meaningless. In fact, the Hall’s run after getting snubbed for the Big Dance has energized alums and given its players some lifetime memories.

“You always have pride for your school and your former team,” said Cooper, who is living in North Carolina. “It makes me feel good that I can talk to friends about it. Most of my friends are aware that I played a hundred years ago.”

Racist taunts and a brawl

Cooper averaged 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds for the 1952-53 Pirates, who opened the season with 27 straight wins and held the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll for six weeks. They were coached by Naismith Hall of Famer John “Honey” Russell, who already had been the inaugural head coach of the Boston Celtics. At center stood 7-foot All-American Walter Dukes, who averaged 26 points and 22 rebounds per game and was a pioneer as one of the sport’s first African-American stars.

Dukes endured racist taunts – at least two opposing players called him the N-word, his teammates later said – and a suspiciously quick whistle from some officials (he once was tagged with a foul on the opening tip). Though Cooper stood just 6-foot-2, Russell often tasked him with guarding the opponent's top big man so Dukes could avoid foul trouble.

It all went wrong during an early March trip to Louisville. For starters, their hotel reservation got scuttled because of segregation – Dukes was denied accommodations.

“We ended up staying on the Pullman (train) cars that we had arrived in,” Cooper said. “We were ready for trouble. Unfortunately trouble was right around the corner.”

During the game, as reported in Life Magazine, the players “went after each other with elbows, body blocks and half nelsons” and things escalated after “a head-on collision left Dukes dazed and prostrate on the floor.”

As Cooper recalled in 2017, “Walter got the ball and this guy (a Louisville forward) popped him in the jaw. Dukes went down, we lost the ball and Walter was called for walking.”

A fight erupted during postgame handshakes, and Louisville fans came pouring out of the stands to attack Seton Hall’s players. One of the Pirates, Mickey Hannon, was famously photographed collapsed on the floor, out cold, after getting sucker-punched. Dukes wore a miraculous medal around his neck and a Louisville fan ripped it off, yelling at him, “You call yourself a Catholic!”

When Louisville came north for the NIT a few weeks later, word circulated that some Pirates and their friends intended to meet the Cardinals at their train stop with a fist-first welcome. Threats of expulsion from Seton Hall administrators cooled things down.

From MSG to Hinkle

Last week, Seton Hall’s three-round run through the NIT shined a light on the old glory of Walsh Gym, which Cooper recalled as having a better court than Madison Square Garden.

“At Madison Square Garden there were spots on the floor where you’d bounce the ball and it wouldn’t come back the same way – particular points where the joints came together,” Cooper said. “At Walsh, I always felt the floor was much more solid.”

Still, the Garden had six times the capacity of Walsh. In an age when games were not widely televised, its grandeur was the drawing card for nationally relevant teams like La Salle (sixth in the final AP poll of 1953), Duquesne (ninth) and Western Kentucky (17th) to prioritize the NIT over the NCAA Tournament.

Back then, the entire tournament took place at the World’s Most Famous Arena. The tradition of holding the semifinals and final there held on until last year, when they got moved to Las Vegas. This year’s site is historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis – where Butler plays and the ultimate scene in the iconic movie “Hoosiers” was set.

Built in 1928, Hinkle’s capacity is a cozy 9,100. That’s a perfect-sized arena for college hoops, although Seton Hall fans will find tickets tough to come by. Indiana State faithful sold out the semis after their Sycamores earned a spot a day before the Pirates did. Perhaps due to Hinkle’s size, the ticket allotments given to each school are less than what would typically be distributed for the NCAA Tournament.

Worth noting: Seton Hall's core is 2-0 in Hinkle over the past two seasons, and Indianapolis is hometown to Pirates wing Dre Davis.

'You can still feel it'

For Seton Hall (23-12), this appears to be a decent matchup. The Pirates rocked UNLV despite missing their top two subs; backup center Elijah Hutchins-Everett (upper body injury) made the trip but freshman wing Isaiah Coleman (flu) did not.

“Zay is not here – Zay is still dealing with an illness," Hall coach Shaheen Holloway said Monday. "Elijah is here, trying to go through (things) and see how he’s going to feel. He participated in things the last two days, so I think he’s going to be OK.”

Georgia (20-16) finished 6-12 in the SEC and is weak on the glass. The Bulldogs feature South Orange native and Blair Academy alum Jabri Abdur-Rahim, a 6-foot-8 senior who averages 12.2 points and 3.5 rebounds but has missed the past few games with a foot injury. Russel Tchewa, their 7-foot center (7.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) also appears to be banged up.

Some common opponents: The Bulldogs beat Xavier by two points in the NIT opener, swept Missouri, and lost to Providence by seven back in November. They lost 10 of their final 12 regular-season games, but got into the NIT due to rules changes that provide major conferences with two automatic bids.

There is no question the NIT’s cachet has diminished over the years, but watching Seton Hall’s players and fans embrace the tournament these past two weeks validated the wisdom to enter it while St. John’s, Pitt, Indiana and some others rejected bids.

“It feels great to be a part of something, and not sitting around at home playing (video) games," postgrad guard Al-Amir Dawes said after two hours of standing ovations during the Pirates’ quarterfinal victory at Walsh.

Compare that with St. John’s players, whose lasting memory of the 2023-24 season will be watching their March Madness snub on a TV screen and head coach Rick Pitino telling them season’s over.

These Pirates, by contrast, are on the verge of hanging a banner. No matter the stakes, that’s something you don’t forget. Henry Cooper hasn’t.

“I have always followed Seton Hall and I was always appreciative of an opportunity to play for such an outstanding team,” he said. “All these years later, you can still feel it.”

Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Seton Hall basketball: In NIT semifinal vs. Georgia, chasing history