OMAHA, Neb. — It seemed like a formality after Seton Hall’s 8-0 start in Big East play.
After the Pirates won at Villanova on Feb. 8 for the first time since 1994, giving them a three-game conference lead, it appeared inevitable. Even when that cushion had fallen to two games just six days ago, it felt like a matter of when, not if.
But in less than a week, that lead vanished, and so did Seton Hall’s chance of an outright Big East regular-season title. The eighth-ranked Pirates couldn’t come through Wednesday on Senior Night against the rival Wildcats and they fell apart down the stretch on Saturday afternoon at Creighton.
At ear-splitting CHI Health Center, the No. 11 Bluejays completed a season sweep, pulling away late for a commanding 77-60 victory and sending Kevin Willard’s team into the postseason on a two-game losing streak.
The Pirates will share the league title with Creighton and Villanova, but they will be the No. 3 seed in the Big East Tournament, a major disappointment after leading the conference the entire way. Adding to that demoralizing feeling, they could hear the Bluejays celebrating from their locker room, cutting down the nets and putting up a banner in front of a raucous sell-out crowd that stormed the court.
“My biggest emotion is the fact those 13 kids in the locker room didn’t get to do the same thing. Nothing’s going to take away from the accomplishment that we won a regular season championship, too,” said Willard, whose team will face sixth-seeded Marquette in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals at the Garden on Thursday at 9:30 p.m. “They’re all down in there, disappointed, which is normal, but at the same time, you have a court storming and hanging a banner.
“I want my guys to understand we’re going to do the same thing. When we get back tonight, I’m going to pay some students to storm Walsh Gym and I’m going to hang up a banner. I don’t care if I have to scotch tape it up there.”
The Pirates (21-9, 13-5) trailed by just two with 6:52 to go, before the hot-shooting Bluejays (24-7, 13-5) pulled away, ripping off a 23-8 run and scoring on 12 of their last 14 possessions to earn a share of the Big East crown for the first time.
Seton Hall was powerless to stop the run, unable to execute at either end of the floor, and now must regroup from this mini-slide (albeit against elite competition) to get a once-special season back on track.
“They showed me everything they needed to show me after that heartbreaking loss on Wednesday,” Willard said. “They could’ve come out and laid an egg and they came out and battled for 35 minutes.”
Seton Hall’s top two stars, Myles Powell and Sandro Mamukelashvili, shot 9-for-23 from the field, with neither able to find a flow. Powell finished with 15 points and Mamukelashvili had just seven, with 12 rebounds. Quincy McKnight also scored 15 for the Pirates.
Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski was the best player on the floor, notching 23 points, six rebounds and five assists. The Bluejays hammered Seton Hall from beyond the arc, making 14-of-26 3-point attempts, three days after Villanova made 13 shots from deep. The Pirates’ size advantage was a non-factor.
“I think [Zegarowski] is one of the top five point guards in the country,” Willard said.
With 9:27 left, Seton Hall took its first lead since the opening moments of the second half, going up three on a Jared Rhoden 3-pointer. Creighton, however, reeled off seven points in a row. And when Ty-Shon Alexander drove the lane for an uncontested layup, Creighton was up by seven with 6:01 left, its largest lead to that point, leading to a Seton Hall timeout.
It got no better. The Bluejays kept adding to their lead, breaking down the Pirates’ defense. With each made shot, the building grew even louder, and the deficit widened.
Seton Hall wasn’t going to win that outright regular-season title that seemed so likely for so long. And it had to listen to the team that ruined its chance celebrate instead.