NEWARK — Before his team took the floor against No. 8 UConn Tuesday night at The Prudential Center, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard had a few choice words for his team.
“He just really said that, ‘I’m not going to let anybody talk about my players, so we better come out here and we better take care of home court and get this victory,’ and that’s pretty much it,” Pirates senior point guard Jordan Theodore said after scoring all 19 of his points in the second half to go with 11 assists as Seton Hall beat UConn, 75-63, for the program’s first win against the Huskies since March 3, 2001, a stretch of 11 consecutive losses.
Willard — whose team is now a surprising 13-2 and should be ranked in the next Top 25 poll — is no fool.
He knows how to push his team’s buttons.
He knew that UConn freshman Andre Drummond had raised some eyebrows Monday by asking, honestly and perhaps a bit naively, “Who’s Herb Pope?”
In Drummond’s defense, he probably just knew Pope as “No. 15″ on film, even if Pope has notched eight double-doubles and is among Big East leaders in scoring and rebouding.
Still, Willard’s words gave the 6-foot-8 Pope a little extra motivation.
With 19 NBA scouts, including Bryan Colangelo, Ed Stefanski, Rod Thorn and Billy King in attendance, Pope finished with 15 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks to Drummond’s 4 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks.
(Jeremy Lamb, a likely lottery pick, led UConn with 19 points, hitting 4-of-10 from beyond the arc.)
“Of course, right before jump-off, it gave me an extra little shot in the arm hearing coach repeat it,” Pope said of Willard’s pre-game words.
On the last play of the first half, Pope hit a putback layup over Drummond as Seton Hall took a 35-22 lead.
Late in the second half, before Willard emptied his bench against the defending national champs, the Seton Hall fans had some fun with “Who is Drum-mond?” chants.
Pope, who has nearly died on two occasions in his life — once when he was shot four times at party his senior year of high school in Aliquippa, Pa., and a second time when he collapsed in April 2010 from a heart disorder — has become wise beyond his years.
He said he spoke to the 6-foot-11 Drummond during the game and had some words of advice for the future NBA lottery pick.
“We chit-chatted and I just said, ‘Hey, you just gotta watch what you say sometimes,’” Pope recalled.
“He said, ‘No, I didn’t say it like that,’” Pope said. “And I was like, ‘I understand. You’re a young guy right now. You’re going to learn how to handle the media.’”
UConn did not make Drummond available to the media after the game, but before the game he Tweeted, “Damn I didn’t know it was a crime to not know someone my fault for not following seton hall basketball.”
Pope said “it feels good to be the guy” that opponents are targeting now.
“Normally, they always talk about stopping Jeremy [Hazell], taking shots at Jeremy,” he said of Seton Hall’s former star shooting guard now playing in the NBA D-League. “They took shots at me. It’s alright. I’m not mad at it at all.”
Now that this chapter is behind them, Drummond and Pope can go back to their lives.
Drummond will still be thought of as a future lottery pick, even as he continues to develop his game.
UConn will still be in the conversation to win the Big East and challenge for another national championship.
Pope will go back to trying to build upon his Big East Player of the Year candidacy and trying to lead Seton Hall to the Big Dance for the first time since 2006, the year before Bobby Gonzalez took over.
Beginning Saturday with a potential trap game at Providence, Seton Hall will continue trying to amass wins for its NCAA resume that now includes victories over UConn, West Virginia, St. Joe’s, VCU, Auburn, Wake Forest and at Dayton.
Yes, things will return to normal.
But on this night, Seton Hall’s senior forward emphatically answered the question, “Who’s Herb Pope?”