From the time Seton Hall went on a 16-1 run to take an early 28-10 lead over its Big East rival from down the New Jersey Turnpike, the Pirates succeeded in keeping Rutgers at bay for the better part of 40 minutes Tuesday night at Prudential Center. Well, more like 34 minutes, 23 seconds to be exact. That's when the Hall's Jeremy Hazell dunked for a 68-55 lead with 5:37 remaining in an eventual 76-70 victory.
But there's no coasting allowed in the Turnpike Rivalry. Mike Rosario scored six of his 17 points in a 9-0 surge by the Scarlet Knights to cut the deficit to four points with 2:37 left. There was one maddening stretch when Rutgers was down six that it missed eight straight shots despite getting a plethora of offensive rebounds and putback chances. But Hazell, who had 25 points, missed the front end of two one-and-one situations, and Eugene Harvey made it three in a row before the Knights got back within four at 72-68 on a tip by Mamady Ndiaye with 21 seconds to play.
"It's hard to keep the lead for 40 minutes," Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzales said. "We had a 10-, 12- or 13-point cushion most of the game, and we lost a little mental edge. It's just difficult to stay ahead double figures the whole game. It's a rivalry game. They're not going to go away."
Finally, Jordan Theodore made a pair of foul shots for Seton Hall with 20.3 seconds on the clock, and after a Rosario miss, Hazell dunked as the Pirates pulled away to a 76-70 victory. The loss dropped Rutgers (14-14, 4-11 Big East) to a spot ahead of only DePaul in the standings and once again pushed the Pirates (16-10, 7-8) to the precipice of NCAA Tournament contention.
For Rutgers coach Fred Hill, whose future is uncertain, it was a case of his kids fighting back and showing small signs of progress. "I can't wait for the day that metropolitan-area basketball is something very special," said Hill, who previously worked at Seton Hall. "I'm talking about Rutgers, Seton Hall and St. John's.
"We're all building right now. When we're really fighting for something, I think it's going to be extremely meaningful and it would be awesome for this area. I think everybody's moving in that direction."
Some are just moving faster than others. In his third year in the Big East, Gonzales has the Pirates positioned to make a legitimate run at an NCAA Tournament bid. They face Marquette (17-9, 8-6), a bubble team, Sunday at Prudential Center in a critical game for both. Then the Pirates finish on the road at Providence and Rutgers. If they can win two of those final three, they finish at 9-9 in the Big East, which would be a first under Gonzales.
"Our strength of schedule was 13 yesterday, and I think that should mean something," Gonzales said. "So if you get 9-9 with a tough schedule, they have to look at you.
"This conference is not easy. You know that line about 'lions eat their young.' We have a lot of lions in this league eating their young. Basically, our conference takes teams and puts them out of the NCAA Tournament. There's teams (from other leagues) that will get into the NCAA this year that wouldn't last two seconds in our league. They would be 15th place."
To some coaches, all the NCAA talk at this time of year might be a distraction. Not to Gonzales. That was his goal from Day 1, and he welcomes the pressure.
"It's good pressure," Gonzales said. "If we want to go to the NCAA, we have to win these games. If you don't do it, you've got to live with the reality."