A buzzer-beater and a blowout. This was a get-well week for Seton Hall.
That mini-slide — three losses in five games following a 10-game winning streak — that could’ve harmed the program’s hopes for a big March run already seems forgotten.
The big week started with Wednesday’s exhilarating victory over No. 21 Butler on Sandro Mamukelashvili’s basket at the horn. It continued Sunday with a rare wire-to-wire win, a thorough 81-65 victory over St. John’s at Prudential Center.
“Individually, they’ve all bounced back,” coach Kevin Willard said after his team reached 20 wins for a fifth consecutive season, making him the first New Jersey Division I coach to do so. “But as a team, I think they’ve really understood what our mentality this time of year has to be.”
Now comes the even tougher part: Three games against ranked teams, two of which are on the road, as the 16th-ranked Pirates look to win their first Big East regular-season crown since 1993. Seton Hall’s widest margin of victory since a 16-point win over Georgetown on Jan. 3 wasn’t flawless as it remained a game ahead of No. 15 Creighton and No. 12 Villanova — two of its final three opponents — atop the league.
Star senior Myles Powell’s shooting woes continued — he made just 6 of 18 shots, though he did add five rebounds and four assists — and the Pirates did allow 16 second-chance points. But they were far better than they have been at the start, leading by double figures early on. Their defense was strong, and they handled the Johnnies’ pressure, which had created so much trouble for them in the first meeting between the locals. The presence of Mamukelashvili, who missed the first game with a fractured right wrist, was particularly significant. He frequently beat the press, creating easy opportunities for himself and his teammates, finishing with 16 points, 10 rebounds and three assists.
“When you have a versatile big man like that, that can put the ball on the ground, shoot, it just makes everything easier,” said Powell, who revealed he has been battling right knee tendinitis the last few weeks, but wouldn’t use it as an excuse for his recent shooting woes.
Like the win against Butler, there was balanced scoring — Powell led five teammates in double figures with 18 points — selfless play (19 assists on 27 made field goals) and an aerial show that included six alley-oops. Mamukelashvili and Romaro Gill had their way in the paint, combining for 28 points and 16 rebounds.
Seton Hall (20-7, 12-3) was sharp from the outset, racing out to a 16-6 edge just 7:31 in, building the kind of lead it has allowed its opponent to create. The lead grew to 14 after a Mamukelashvili slam and was 17 when Mamukelashvili scored inside again. St. John’s (14-13, 3-11), meanwhile, couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean, missing 17 of its first 20 shots from the field and was limited to 33.8 percent shooting overall from the field. Leading scorer LJ Figueroa scored 19 points, but was inefficient, needing 17 shots.
“Being up 14 at half, that was like being up 30, to be honest with you,” Willard said. “It was just a different feeling.”
The feeling this week wasn’t different — it was what most of this season has felt like for the Pirates. Last week, Seton Hall hopes, was an anomaly.
“We needed this week to get back on track,” Mamukelashvili said.
It sets Seton Hall up for a big finish. It visits No. 19 Marquette next Saturday for reigning Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard’s Senior Day. That’s followed by Villanova coming to Newark for Powell’s Senior Day and a trip to Creighton for a showdown that could decide the league crown.
Willard described it as “three monsters,” but also three opportunities for Seton Hall to bolster its already formidable NCAA Tournament résumé. Now the Pirates will enter that daunting stretch with momentum.
“I still don’t feel like we’re at our best and I feel like March is going to be a good month for us,” Powell said. “We’ve still got a lot left in the tank.”