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Life on The Bubble: Seton Hall (02.11.17)

Brad Penner/USA Today Sports
Khadeen Carrington (0) scored 13 of his 14 points in the second half, but couldn't overcome his 0-for-6 start from the field (Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)
Khadeen Carrington (0) scored 13 of his 14 points in the second half, but he couldn’t overcome his 0-for-6 start from the field to lead the Pirates to a win against St. John’s. (Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)

The Seton Hall Pirates couldn’t have started February – the month where teams on the fence in terms of making the NCAA Tournament make their moves either towards the Big Dance or towards the NIT – with more of a cliffhanger sequence, not even if a Hollywood producer got a chance to write it. Therefore, barely anyone could blame them for not having it this afternoon in a game that was more of a “must-not-lose” instead of a “must-win” basketball game

Less than three days after playing – and winning – its second consecutive overtime game, the Pirates ran out of gas in the second half and succumbed to the St. John’s Red Storm, 78-70, dropping Seton Hall to two games below .500 (6-7) in Big East Conference play and a half-game behind the Johnnies for sixth place in the league.

In a conference that most experts believe will get at least four and probably five teams into the NCAA Tournament, currently being seventh is a cold reminder of how much back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances is on a knife’s edge for the defending conference tournament champions. After two thrilling victories against Georgetown and Providence, the Pirates, especially in the second half, couldn’t muster too much against a resurgent St. John’s team.

Going into this, these two games, Providence and St. John’s, I knew were going to be the two toughest ones just because both teams are coming off bye weeks,” said Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard, whose team won an overtime game across the Hudson River against the Friars late Wednesday night. “The Wednesday late night game for us and then the early Saturday game – I knew it was going to be a quick turnaround. I don’t think we were tired, but, obviously, I don’t think I prepared them as well as I probably could have on the one day.

The heavy legs could be summed up statistically by the number of turnovers, 18, that led to 30 Red Storm points off of them. Even more so, the fatigue manifested itself more than in just the tired bodies.

“I don’t think it’s physical. I maybe think it’s a little bit mental. It’s tough playing two overtime games and having two teams coming off bye weeks.”

While the loss will appear as a damaging one to some, Willard is quick to remind everyone that it’s just one game.

“We still have a great opportunity coming in front of us,” said Willard. “We have three home games, all great teams, all good teams, like [the Big East Conference] is. We have to step up to the challenge.”

And what a challenge it is. Those three games, all at the Prudential Center, are against NCAA Tournament locks: Creighton, Villanova and Xavier. While the Pirates used their run through the Big East Tournament in 2016 to officially stamp themselves ready for the NCAA Tournament, this year’s moment of truth will come a few weeks earlier on the schedule. Interestingly enough, with the most important stretch of the season now upon them, Willard was so caught up in the here and now that he suffered from oversight when asked about that grueling stretch.

I’m not even thinking about it,” said Willard. “I actually asked [my players] who we played. I thought we played Xavier first. I forgot. We play Creighton. You can’t think about having to win all three. Do you have to win all three [to feel safe about the NCAA Tournament]? You don’t know. You don’t. The goal is to win all three, yeah, but I mean, we’re going to start with Creighton.”

The Pirates may be on the fence, but Willard is steadfast in his team’s ability to not stay down long, a reason why Pirates supporters have a reason for optimism.

“That’s what these guys have done a good job of so far this year; Every time we’ve had a tough challenge or a tough slate on the schedule, they bounce back great. That’s why I’ve been so proud of them. That’s why I have a lot of confidence in them. But we haven’t had an easy slate. Every time I’ve asked them to regroup and come back, they’ve done it. They’ve done it with a great attitude. They’re playing their hearts out.”

Going into this season-defining stretch, the Pirates will have to play their hearts out, and maybe play out of their minds as well, just like last February and March.

Who doesn’t like a high-wire act going into March Madness? Well, outside of the teams on the bubble, of course. We’ll learn more about the Pirates in the next two weeks than at any point in the season.

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