NEW YORK - With 10 seconds left in the first half of Seton Hall’s semifinal Big East Tournament game against Providence Friday, the Pirates’ Sterling Gibbs, a Scotch Plains native, skied for a rebound, raced down the court and found Brian Oliver, who made a three-pointer at the buzzer to end the first half. Gibbs sprinted back down the court toward the locker room and, without breaking stride, exchanged a high-five with head coach Kevin Willard. Seton Hall had cut the lead to 38-34 after being down as many as 8 points.
“We just needed a spark to get us going,” said Gibbs, whose own buzzer-beater won the previous day’s game against top-seeded Villanova the number three team in the nation. “And that was the spark.”
While Seton Hall ultimately fell to Providence 80-74, ending their improbable run in the tournament, it did finish the game with the focus and determination seen in the previous two games and heads into an off-season full of promise. Willard, who lives in Westfield, took over a program four years ago that had internal strife under former coach Bobby Gonzalez. Every player on this year’s roster for the first time was recruited by Willard. He saw his first class of seniors graduate and there is clearly strong leadership in South Orange.
“It’s night and day since coach got here and the program is heading the right direction,” said Grant Billmeir, in his forth season as director of basketball operations with the Pirates. “His work ethic and the way he prepares--you always talk about the way NFL coaches game planning. He game-plans for opponents in the same way. In his preparation and scouting there is no detail unturned and he’s always working extremely hard. “
Willard, who played point guard at the University of Pittsburgh, is the son of former long-time college coach Ralph Willard. His coaching education was enhanced perhaps more than anything by the 10 years he spent with Rick Pitino in the NBA with the Celtics and at the University of Louisville. During that time Willard held virtually every job in the coaching ranks, from breaking down video tape to individual player workouts, but ultimately Willard came to understand that coaching is about building relationships with players and gaining that trust, which leads to winning games.
“These guys, unfortunately, their win-loss record hasn’t been phenomenal ,” said Willard, 38, referring to this year’s senior class, who finished their careers with a sub-.500 record. “But, they’ve provided a solid foundation for us to build on for the future.”
“These guys have been instrumental in helping us go from a very unstable situation to a pretty stable one,” he said.
With a good recruiting class in place and four years of laying down a much-needed foundation, Willard and the Pirates have the spark they need to energize New Jersey basketball again.
Mike Cohen is a sports writer for Education Update and the founder and director of Throwback Sports, a Westfield-based individual and small group sports program for children. Reach him at email@example.com