Seton Hall 78, St. John’s 67: More Than Isaiah Whitehead

Seton Hall is the youngest team in the Big East, but for roughly two-thirds of today’s game against St. John’s, the Hall appeared to have morphed into their cross-river elders. Largely comprised of underclassmen and newcomers, the Pirates played as if this was their third or fourth conference opener, building a lead that stretched to 11 points with seven or so minutes remaining in the game.

Sterling Gibbs drives against pressure. He scored 25 points in Seton Hall's victory on Wednesday afternoon.
Sterling Gibbs drives against pressure. He scored 25 points in Seton Hall’s victory on Wednesday afternoon.

But then that youth, which SHU had managed to sublimate, both through preseason practices and a road-heavy non-conference schedule, became an issue. The Red Storm unfurled their full-court man press, the Pirates drew a technical foul, and cut the lead to four in just two minutes.

But that inexperience disappeared as quickly as it had emerged. The Hall’s Sterling Gibbs, one of the team’s few juniors, drove the lane, drew SJU’s shot-blocking specialist Chris Obekpa, and drop a touch pass to Angel Delgado, who made the and-one layup.

Like a street performer balancing on a 10-foot high unicycle, Seton Hall settled themselves then gutted out the win, 78-67. “I am a little more calm and relaxed at times [this season],” said Willard following the game. “I have two guards, a senior power forward, guys that have done good things and bad things. I have a lot of trust in my guys right now.”

The Red Storm’s heralded defense, a stifling mix of match-up zone and man, was thought to be the game’s defining factor. Turns out, it was, but for all the wrong reasons. Seton Hall used only 61 possessions — its second lowest this season — and scored 1.28 points per possession. “We knew we could score,” Gibbs said, and they did thanks to strong perimeter shooting — the squad made 44% of their threes — and with precision passing to counter the athleticism of SJU’s defense.

“Our biggest worry was ball sharing,” said Willard. “They’ve been turning people over, and we only had two turnovers that led to fast-break buckets.”

True, that was a pre-game talking point for Willard’s staff, but what was likely unsaid was how the squad would fare in their first true test without Isaiah Whitehead. The heralded frosh suffered a stress fracture in his foot, an injury that will cost him at least two weeks of playing time. Seton Hall has the sort of depth it lacked in previous seasons, so Willard was able to turn to another frosh, one who wasn’t as highly regarded as Whitehead but was key in the New Year’s Eve victory. According to Willard, “Khadeen Carrington played the best he did all year. He tried to do what Isaiah helped us do.”

Carrington used his season-high 29 minutes to form, with Gibbs and Jaren Sina, the three-guard backcourt that broke St. John’s. Whether it was driving the bucket from the corner of the zone, or making the extra pass that set up an assist, Carrington helped guide Seton Hall’s offensive flow. The Pirates have cut down drastically on three-point field goal attempts this season, a long-time Willard staple, but Carrington’s passing vision helped SHU hit 10 of 23 shots from deep.

What was crucial, though, was how the Pirates attacked St. John’s, particularly when SJU was playing man. Willard had whichever Pirate was guarded by Obekpa set a pick for the ballhandler. Because of how well SHU has shot the ball this season (39%), Obekpa flat-hedged to guard against the drive, but this action had two side effects: it took Obekpa out of shot blocking position, and two, it allowed the quickness of the Pirates’ guards, like Gibbs, Carrington, and Sina, to shine. “We didn’t level off dribble penetration,” Lavin explained.

SJU didn’t have the time to recover, and had to consistently help off and shift their defensive assignments, which then ultimately led to unhurried looks. “Our coach calls it the noise,” SJU’s D’Angelo Harrison said. “We let the noise, which is [Seton Hall’s shooting] beat us. We let them do things we didn’t want them to do.”

The offensive contributions of both Sina (14 points) and Gibbs (25) were of course a catalyst for the Seton Hall victory, but Delgado’s brute strength and genius timing also helped prevent the signature St. John’s run-outs from becoming a factor. SJU has significantly upped their defensive rebounding percentage this season to create easy buckets, but Delgado’s glass work made that nearly impossible.

Delgado is the most natural rebounder the Big East has seen since Pitt’s DeJuan Blair. He ranks within the top 75 of Ken Pomeroy’s offensive and defensive rebounding database, and none of the Red Storm were capable of controlling or matching the physicality of the freshman, who grabbed 12 boards (nine on the defensive glass).

When asked during the preseason if he considers Seton Hall a rival, Harrison answered, “Syracuse is our rival.” Fair enough, and SJU handled the Cuse at the Carrier Dome, the first time the Queens squad had accomplished it in more than a decade. But this is the fourth game between the two NYC-area schools in three years that has been close until the buzzer. When asked by reporters after the game if he considered the match-up a rivalry, Gibbs also demurred, saying, “We can’t be their rival if they don’t consider us their rival.”

Now though, with Seton Hall’s youth spoiling the conference debut of the 15th-ranked Red Storm in front of 9,183 people, including a healthy mixture of SJU and SHU supporters, it’s clear this rivalry, which has long been dormant, is back.

Matt Giles writes about the Big East, and other conferences, for Big Apple Buckets. Follow him on Twitter @HudsonGiles.

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