Inside Seton Hall’s dramatic UConn comeback – and why it could mark a turning point
From team defense to fast-break dunks to KC Ndefo’s game-winner on a busted play, Seton Hall displayed the resilience it’s needed all season to upset UConn and, just maybe, turn its season around.
NEWARK – The intensity isn’t always there for the Seton Hall Pirates.
You hardly saw any when they lost to Siena in a yawner of a third-place game at Disney World, or when they fell behind early at Allen Fieldhouse later that week and couldn’t fight back. You’d see postgame radio quotes from Shaheen Holloway bemoaning how some “guys don’t want to play basketball” and wonder from whom – or from how many – he wasn’t getting the buy-in he desired.
The intensity wasn’t there in the first half of Wednesday’s home game with No. 15 UConn. A Huskies team that had lost four of five and was just bullied by St. John’s appeared ready to shift back into killer mode. Like an unfair swim meet, UConn started lapping the Pirates, beating them up and down the floor and owning the boards to build a 17-point lead in 17 minutes.
The Pirates trailed 40-26 at halftime. They knew much more would be asked of them than a stop here and a 3-pointer there to get back in that game.
“We work for things like this,” Tyrese Samuel said. “We’ve been working hard since summer.”
From team defense to fast-break dunks to KC Ndefo’s game-winner on a busted play, Seton Hall displayed the cohesion and resilience it’s needed all season to upset UConn and maybe, just maybe, turn its season around.
Taking down the Huskies can only begin with containing Adama Sanogo, a Big East Player of the Year candidate and the league’s leading scorer. Seton Hall has few players with the size to defend a 6-foot-9, 245-pounder at the five, with preferred starting five Alexis Yetna sidelined all season with a knee injury. Sanogo had 10 easy points by halftime.
After taking that beating for 20 minutes, Seton Hall showed rare resilience after halftime. Ndefo and Samuel got their hands in to disrupt soft passes inside to Sanogo. Even Tray Jackson, who has struggled to defend other teams’ fives throughout the season, stepped it up. Sanogo only scored six points on 2-of-6 shooting in the second half and, crucially, picked up four of his five fouls.
“I thought it was a team effort,” Holloway said. “We tried to not let him get position, low position. We tried to push him out a little bit because once he gets position down there low, it’s over. There’s nothing you could do about it. But I thought Tyrese battled, I thought Tray battled and I was happy to see it.”
“You know you gotta go in there prepared. You know it’s gonna be a lot of banging the whole game,” Samuel said. “They’re always going to be physical with you … When you match it, it’s kind of perfect for us. We’re a scrappy team so when we play physical I feel like we’re a really great team and we’re hard to beat when we’re physical.”
No shock there. It’s a hallmark of Holloway’s teams, as anyone who lost to Saint Peter’s last year would attest.
“I wouldn’t want to compare this year’s team to last year’s team with Saint Peter’s. But definitely the defensive intensity, it comes with the coaching style and the culture that Coach Sha brought here,” Ndefo said.
The idea of “turning your defense into offense” is repeated so often it’s in the cliché danger zone, but the energy truly was different when Seton Hall began its first run a couple minutes into the second half.
Al-Amir Dawes scored, forced a steal of Tristen Newton as he tried to bring the ball up and scored again in 12 seconds. He made a three a minute later for the Pirates’ next points, which started a critical 8-0 run. If Dawes hadn’t won a loose-ball rebound on the floor and started in transition right away, fans wouldn’t have been treated to this dunk by Ndefo that cut the margin to 48-45:
“We’re starting to understand that if we defend and keep teams out of transition, we give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Holloway said. “The guys are working at it. I thought KC came out in the second half and just played, and the team just followed him. He came out with the intensity, him and Femi, and we kind of went from there.”
Not only was UConn held to 7-of-24 shooting in the second half, the Huskies didn’t make a field goal in the final 6:50 of the game, missing their last seven. Both teams got into the double bonus rather early and it was trending toward a foul shooting contest (hello, James Breeding).
UConn still had a five-point edge until four minutes remaining, when Dawes cut it to three on two free throws. Samuel made multiple steals on the next few UConn possessions.
UConn was fully demoralized.
“Femi dunked the ball and UConn tried to come down and tried to run a play, but they didn’t even know what was going on, it was just so loud,” Samuel recalled. He began to mimic his opponents’ confusion, speaking fast: “They were just like, ‘What play are we running? What play are we running?’
“I was like, ‘Oh that’s perfect. That’s what we need.’ We need that every game, every home game.”
Kadary Richmond gave Hall its first lead on a jumper in the lane, a 65-64 edge that lasted for six seconds before Newton made free throws for UConn. The Huskies had one more shot to extend their lead and missed a three – another area of defense Hall vastly improved on after halftime – to give the Pirates a chance to win in regulation.
Richmond said the call was to work a ball screen and look to make something happen. He kicked it out to Odukale, open at the arc with three seconds left. A 30 percent 3-point shooter entering the night, he couldn’t have been the Pirates’ preferred choice.
“We didn’t run the play the way I wanted to run the play,” Holloway said later. “Before KC took it out, I told him, ‘Make sure you get down there to offensive rebound,’ and I thought he was in position.”
Seton Hall took three offensive rebounds in the first half and eight in the second half. That alone can explain so much of Wednesday’s turnaround.
“You know, it was a great feeling,” Ndefo said. “We were really looking to execute our play and I felt like I was doing a good job crashing the boards the whole game. Just being in a good position and just grabbing the rebound and going back up.”
Of the comeback wins in recent Seton Hall history, Samuel said Wednesday had to rank No. 1.
“This kind of reminded me of when we beat Butler, when Sandro (Mamukelashvili) hit the game-winner,” he said. “The crowd was phenomenal, it was just loud. It felt like it was a March Madness game. When he made that bucket, it was kind of surreal.”
Seton Hall is now fifth in the Big East standings. UConn is sixth, an unthinkable midseason collapse for a team ranked No. 2 in the country four weeks ago.
But this is more about the Pirates, who have all the momentum in the world entering their next game Saturday against another ranked foe, Marquette. They’ve won four straight and five of six after an ominous start to the league slate. They now have three Quad 1 wins, joining Rutgers on the road and Memphis on a neutral floor. And they’ve just witnessed what magical things can happen when their energy stays up all night. An NCAA Tournament berth is no longer out of the question.
Holloway was asked where he’d say his team’s defense is at this point in the season. Always looking for more (and rightfully so), he said it was 80 to 85 percent there in the second half – after hovering at 20 percent in the first half.
“When we come out and do what we’re supposed to do, we put ourselves in position,” Holloway said. “The second half, I thought we came out and understood the game plan better. The first half was a debacle. We just defended and scored off our defense, you know? Ball game.”
Happy Thursday, and thanks for reading. That eclipsed Seton Hall-Rutgers and Harvard-Princeton as the most exciting game I’ve covered this season, not just by final score but by how it was achieved. The Prudential Center hasn’t gotten louder than when Ndefo and Odukale finished those dunks.
As for cleaning the glass, here are some leftover notes, quotes and observations from that game:
Per Jerry Carino, this was Seton Hall’s largest comeback to win a Big East game since they dug out of a 20-point hole to beat St. John’s in 2006.
Ndefo was fouled on his game-winning shot. He and Holloway later said the strategy was to miss the shot on purpose so UConn didn’t have time to get set under the basket and make something happen. He also had his left wrist wrapped in ice when he arrived at the postgame press conference.
Jamir Harris had four scoreless games in his last seven and was 4 for his last 35 from 3-point range entering Wednesday. He’d been getting plenty of flak from fans. But Seton Hall doesn’t win that game if Harris doesn’t make a triple with 7:26 to play to cut a six-point game to three. His only field goal of the game was indispensable.
Lost in the madness was Kadary Richmond’s first double-double of the season. Not with points and assists like your typical point guard, but with a team-high 18 points and a career-high 10 rebounds. Richmond had nine boards alone in the first half, when nobody else on Seton Hall was beating Sanogo or 7-foot-2 UConn freshman Donovan Clingan. Asked about Richmond’s defensive improvement, Holloway was blunt: “He has to pick it up, or I’ll sit him down. That’s it. He’s starting to get it, and I think he wants it. Him having 10 rebounds tonight was big.”
Seton Hall’s NET ranking improved four spots to No. 61, approaching bubble territory for sure. More Big East wins are going to be necessary to improve the tournament resume. As an aside, in the past I’ve called it the NCAA NET ranking wanting to be clear to unfamiliar readers that this is something official, not a popular but unofficial metric like KenPom. But I’d better stop doing that because it’s redundant – that would make it the “NCAA NCAA Evaluation Tool.”