Monday, December 16, 2013

Saint Peter's Finally Slays Seton Hall "Giant"

The schools are separated by a mere 15 miles, so any time Saint Peter's of Jersey City, N.J., goes against Seton Hall of South Orange, N.J., it's a big deal.

It's probably a bigger deal for the Peacocks, the MAAC's representative that gets an annual attempt to try to slay the "giant" that plays in the Big East.

Saint Peter's came darned close early in the 2009-10 season. It took a last-second 35-foot heave by Seton Hall's Eugene Harvey to get the Pirates a 53-51 victory in that meeting.

Otherwise the rivalry resembled the the situation that once existed between baseball's New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the Yanks' former dominance once described as a hammer vs. a nail.

Mostly, Saint Peter's got "hammered" in its annual in-state rivalry meeting with Seton Hall, having lost 17 straight in the series.

But all of that changed on Saturday as the Peacocks made the requisite clutch plays both at the end of regulation and through overtime to finally hammer back at at Seton Hall with an 83-80 overtime victory over the Pirates at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

Junior guard Desi Washington finished off the heroics with a three-pointer with 3.3 seconds remaining to clinch the victory, and finished with a career-high 34 points.

Junior forward Marvin Dominique added 25 points and eight rebounds (23 of his points coming in the second half and overtime session).

The win, though, very nearly was stolen away. Saint Peter's had a three-point lead with three seconds left in OT when Seton Hall inbounded to half court and called a time out with 1.1 seconds remaining.

The subsequent in-bounds play went to the Pirates' Brian Oliver, who sank a trey at the buzzer to send the game into the extra session.

And, then, Seton Hall took a quick three-point lead in OT, a point at which it might have been expected that the beleaguered Peacocks, who entered the game with a 2-6 record and more than their share of tough losses, accept their fate of another loss in the series.

Instead, Saint Peter's finally found a way to knock off a good Seton Hall team that entered the game with a 7-3 record.

It was the fourth victory over a high-major level opponent in the Saint Peter's career of head coach John Dunne. His teams had previously beaten Rutgers twice and Alabama once in recent years.

But, Saturday's was the first over Seton Hall for the Peacocks since 1995 and it was most assuredly the biggest non-conference victory of Dunne's time with the program.

So, how did he celebrate?

"A lot of clearing out the snow from my driveway and walkway on Sunday and, then, some nice family time," said Dunne.

For sure, though, there were celebratory emotions from the victory and, quite possibly, a realization that things are finally coming together for a program that put up 5-26 and 9-21 records in the two years since its 2010-11 appearance in the NCAA tournament.

It's a win the program certainly needed, particularly after being on top for almost the entirety of its game at Boston University, before losing, 66-65; and, after being ahead by 12 points with under eight minutes left at Niagara before losing there, too, 61-56.

"The whole thing for us is so fragile," said Dunne, by phone on Sunday. "We could have won at BU and Niagara, but we didn't. We win those two and, then, we're 4-4 instead of 2-6 (prior to playing Seton Hall).

"Instead, as a young team, you feel like the world is caving in. And, then, Seton Hall hits that three to tie it at the end of regulation and gets an early three-point lead in overtime ... '

At that point, it wouldn't have been difficult for the Peacocks to just accept another difficult and discouraging close loss. Instead, Dunne's team rallied back for what could have been a season-turning victory, a much needed momentum builder.

"You get wins like that by going through the wars together and facing adversity together," said Dunne.

"We've got a chance to be pretty good. This is the most talent we've had in the program in a few years. As a coaching staff we've just been telling the guys that they can't worry about our record, or about what people around the league, even on our own campus, might be saying or thinking about us. We just have to keep working hard and improving every day.

"We had some of our best practices the days leading up to the Seton Hall game, and it showed. We were missing shots early, and we told the guys at halftime that those shots would start falling, and they did."

Maybe now, finally, things will start falling Saint Peter's way.

It's been a bit of a climb just to get here. Dunne's 2010-11 NCAA team was top heavy with seniors, four of them in the starting lineup. It has been a process to rebuild after that and, now, the rebuilding seems to be ready to start paying off.

But, not without some work. Dunne points out that only three members of his currently playing rotation, Washington, starting guard Chris Burke and reserve forward Elias Desport have past experience in the program.

Joining Washington and Burke in the starting lineup are two freshmen, point guard Trevis Wyche and forward Quadir Welton and Dominique, a transfer from Fordham. One of the team's top reserves, combo guard Jamel Fields is a transfer from Fairfield and is in his first season of eligibility for the Peacocks.

Dominique is averaging 18.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game thus far and looks like one of the best forwards in the MAAC.

"And, remember," said Dunne. "He has hardly played before. He didn't play much as a Fordham as a freshmen and, then, was hurt and didn't play a lot as a sophomore. He had to sit out here last season as a transfer, so this is the first year he's been playing a lot in college."

Wyche, a learning-on-the-job point guard, is 5.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, while Welton's per-game averages of 7.3 points and 6.4 rebounds stamp him as one of the better first-year players in the conference.

Even Washington, the team's leading scorer (13.4 ppg.) is having to adjust.

"Remember, he was our go-to guy last year and pretty much had carte blanche in our offense," said Dunne. "Now, he's going through a learning process of learning how to play together."

That sounds like Dunne's entire team, a mix of some old and much new, with more talent than in the recent past, still learning to play together.

"You have to go through some wars," admits Dunne.

It doesn't hurt to win one of them to accelerate the process, and Saint Peter's won a big one against Seton Hall on Saturday.

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