NEWARK, N.J. -- A night after St. John's notched its most impressive win of the season -- an 85-69 victory over undefeated Northwestern -- Seton Hall played its best 20 minutes of the fall, opening up a 14-point halftime lead on Dayton at the Prudential Center.
The problem is, the Pirates got pummeled in the second half. Seton Hall coughed up the entire lead within six minutes, and eventually fell to the Flyers, 69-65.
"It's very disappointing," said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard. "But you know, I was really excited about the way we played the first half."
Seton Hall was indeed outstanding in the first half, shooting 50 percent (16-for-32) and scoring 13 fast-break points en route to a 40-26 edge. The Pirates' defense also forced Dayton to shoot just 10-for-36 from the field (27.8 percent) in the first 20 minutes.
The second 20 minutes was a whole 'nother story. Dayton tied things up at 46 with 14:12 remaining, after making seven of its first nine shots, and led for most of the game from there on out.
"The reason we got up so big in the first half is because we played really good defense," Willard said. "We kinda came out [in the second half] and gave them five straight layups. ... We gave them momentum, I thought that was really the biggest thing."
"At the end of the first half we felt like we had this game," said Seton Hall guard Jordan Theodore. "We just came out really slow, and you could see that they just played with that will to win. They were down 14, but they didn't get discouraged, and it's like they had that extra fight that we didn't have in the second half."
The biggest shot of the game was a 3-pointer by Dayton guard Paul Williams, giving the Flyers a 59-55 lead with exactly six minutes remaining, and Dayton never trailed again. That shot came off an offensive rebound -- one of 18 offensive boards the Flyers reined in, resulting in 20 second-chance points.
"Our biggest negative right here as I look at it is obviously the 18 offensive rebounds," Willard said. "If we don't fix that, it's gonna be a long next 20 games."
Seton Hall has largely flown under the radar this season, overshadowed by Steve Lavin and his early success at St. John's. Even Rutgers -- picked to finish 15th in the 16-team Big East -- has garnered a little more pub, being such a pleasant surprise at 8-2 under new skipper Mike Rice.
Willard, also in his first year, has had to navigate Seton Hall through a very challenging non-conference schedule. It's been especially difficult when you consider he lost his leading scorer, Jeremy Hazell, to a broken wrist after just three games. Hazell was a first-team All-Big East selection in the preseason, and was averaging 24 points per contest. He may be out for the rest of the season.
Seton Hall now sits at 6-5 heading into Christmas. The Pirates lost to No. 22 Temple (by six), to Xavier (by five), to Clemson (by six in overtime) and to Arkansas (by nine) prior to Wednesday night's defeat. But they had also won three straight coming in -- albeit against UMass, Longwood and N.J.I.T.
In Hazell's absence, it's been a team effort -- no player is averaging more than 12 points per game. But several players have tried to fill the gap.
In particular, Theodore, a 6-foot junior point guard, has picked up his game. Theodore was averaging 12.2 points and 5.1 assists coming into Wednesday night -- both team highs. But he didn't play very well against Dayton, shooting just 5-for-17 from the floor.
"Me personally, I feel like I let my team down tonight," Theodore said. "I just didn't deliver."
"For the first time I thought Theo played out of control ... that happens," Willard said. "Everybody else I thought played really solid."
Freshman 6-foot-6 swingman Fuquan Edwin -- who had 10 points and nine rebounds against Dayton -- has also gotten off to a very nice start to his college career. Edwin was named the Big East's Rookie of the Week last week.
And 6-foot-8 power forward Herb Pope, the Big East's leading rebounder last season, is still trying to round himself into shape after undergoing open-heart surgery following a harrowing ordeal in the offseason.
Seton Hall plays one more non-conference game -- against yet another Atlantic 10 team, Richmond, on Sunday -- before beginning Big East play. Willard and his players stressed the positives after this defeat, but they face a daunting task, with the Big East currently having seven teams ranked in the top 25 -- including five in the top 10.
Also a scary thought? Dayton lost to another Big East team -- undefeated but un-ranked Cincinnati -- by 34.
Still, Theodore said his squad feels confident heading into conference play.
"I definitely feel like the team is ready to take that challenge," Theodore said. "The Big East is tough, but that's why these guys are here. They came here to play in the toughest league in the country. So we're gonna have to lace 'em up and bring it."
Yes, they'll need to bring it -- for 40 minutes, not 20.