NEWARK, N.J. — The result of the third annual Garden State Hardwood Classic was, to anyone who had their say on the topic in the days leading up to it, a foregone conclusion.
Despite the Rutgers men’s basketball team entering the annual rivalry game against in-state rivals Seton Hall off its best start since the program peaked in 1975-76, the Pirates were double-digit favorites.
But when the ball hit the floor after a week of speculation off it, the Scarlet Knights stood up to the Pirates, not only matching them punch-for-punch but even delivering a few big blows themselves.
Rutgers sucked the energy from the sell-out crowd of 10,841 at Prudential Center and used it to its advantage.
The Knights took the first lead and led by nine points at the half, holding the home side scoreless for the first five minutes of the game and to just 23 points in the opening 20.
For a short time, the unthinkable — Rutgers coming into the Rock and pulling off an upset over a team fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year — seemed more than plausible.
Soon enough, those hopes would come crashing down as quickly as they were built up. Seton Hall used a pair of runs — a 17-9 sequence in the first eight minutes to retake the lead and a 21-8 one in the final six to maintain it — to hold its visitors away, sealing a fourth-straight win over Rutgers in the form of a 72-61 instant classic.
“We had our chances … We’re close, though. We’re close,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “We gotta do a better job of getting these guys to execute down the stretch but we saw some minutes there we have a chance to be a good basketball team. … a tip of the hat to Seton Hall and the good job that they do. Again, well coached and good players. WE’re going to get there too.”
Between the two runs was a period of back-and-forth basketball between the sides, with the lead changing four times in the six minute period.
It was in that stretch that Angel Delgado earned his second straight Joe Calabese Trophy, given to the most valuable player of the Garden State Hardwood Classic.
The junior forward scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half. A matchup nightmare for Pikiell, he completed the 9 point comeback with a jumper, expanded it with a layup and maintained it with a pair of free throws.
He played a large role in the foul trouble the Knights’ bigs found themselves in throughout the contest, terrorizing senior center C.J. Gettys, who would foul out with four minutes remaining without grabbing a single rebound on the night.
Delgado, on the other hand, had a game-high 16 boards as the Pirates dominated Rutgers, rebounding them 48-36 (17-6 on the offensive glass) in an area that’s grown to be one of its strengths under Pikiell.
“I feel like we had him under control in the first half,” said junior forward Deshawn Freeman, who again led the Knights on the backboards with 11 rebounds. “Second half, we let him get low position and he’s a good finisher.”
While the 13-2 run capitalized by a thunderous dunk by Desi Rodriguez was the one that put the game out of reach for Rutgers (11-2), the Knights all agree that it was the initial stretch in the second half that ultimately lost them the game.
The Pirates opened the latter half with four quick points in less than a minute, prompting Pikiell to take his first timeout. It wouldn’t make much of a difference, with the Hall continuing to slowly but surely chip away at the deficit.
Rutgers backcourt of sophomore Corey Sanders and junior Nigel Johnson, who led the Knights in scoring with 17 and 16 points respectively, each hit shots to maintain some distance from the Pirates, but the home side wouldn’t be denied.
Having missed its first eight shot attempts of the night and 9 of its final 10 in the first half, Seton Hall hit 8 of its first 12 attempts in the second half, the last of which a jump shot from junior Delgado that completed the comeback and gave the Pirates their first lead of the second half with just over 12 minutes remaining in the contest.
“It was the first four minutes of the second half that was the difference in the game,” Pikiell said. “Scored 4 points on layups, we didn’t come out of halftime the right way. We were kind of locking them up in the first half and then gave freebies. Got their energy going.”
Despite being dominated on the boards during a majority of the first half by the home side — at one point, Seton Hall doubled-up (18-9) on the glass — and falling into early foul trouble, the Knights were able to maintain the Pirates within distance. Playing the aggressive brand of defense Pikiell has instilled, they held Seton Hall to 26.5 percent shooting from the floor, including a putrid 16.7 percent from three.
Stout as it was in the first half, it was always unlikely Rutgers would be able to repeat the performance in the second.
"We kind of had them on their heels and going into halftime, we had a good lead," Johnson said. "We started off flat in the second half but ... I felt like we played hard the whole game and gave it 100 percent effort. But at the end of the day, it didn’t come out in our favor at the end. That's just something we gotta work on is finishing games because we had them, we could’ve easily won, but we let them come away with it."
Though it wasn’t able to maintain the level of defense and did lose by double-digits, the Knights feel they proved something with the win.
They showed their record was a product of quality play and not just a soft schedule. It was another step in the consistent improvement they’ve shown under Pikiell, who admitted the growth is happening quicker than he anticipated in his post-game presser.
With a year between now and the next meeting with the Pirates at the Rutgers Athletic Center next December, he believes the Garden State is set for another classic.
“I think this is a great game, I think this is great for New Jersey,” Pikiell said. “I think they saw two great basketball teams and and I think some good players, and I think they saw a real competitive basketball game. I’m disappointed we lost but I look forward to playing them next year … We’ll be back and we’ll be more competitive next time.”