NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Seton Hall has won for the ninth time in its first 10 games, matching its start two seasons ago — its two best starts since the 1992-93 season.
But the ninth win didn’t come easily Sunday, as the Pirates needed overtime to sneak past upset-minded Mercer 80-77.
“We found a way to win and that’s all that matters,” Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said after his team’s sixth straight win, all at home. “Last year, we would have found a way to lose this game. We found a way to win, and we almost found a way to give up the win. But we made the plays in overtime to win the game.
“I’m really happy with winning six at home, especially with the students not here today, and I’m really happy with the way we progressed.”
Senior forward Herb Pope scored 24 points and collected 17 rebounds to lead the Pirates, the eighth time in 10 games that he has reached double figures in points and rebounds.
Pope opened the overtime session with a power move to give the Pirates a 70-68 lead they never relinquished. It started a 7-0 run, with Fuquan Edwin adding two free throws and freshman Aaron Cosby capping the run with a long 3-pointer.
Jordan Theodore, who had 16 points, hit three clutch free throws in the final minute to ice the win, including two with 8 seconds left.
Mercer’s Chris Smith had an open look on a 3-pointer with 2 seconds left, but the shot rimmed out, securing the victory for the Pirates.
Mercer, of the Atlantic Sun Conference, dropped to 7-4 overall.
It marks the second time Seton Hall has started with a 9-1 record since the 1992-93 season, when it went 14-1 under coach P.J. Carlesimo. That team, which featured the school’s all-time leading scorer, Terry Dehere, finished 28-7 before losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Western Kentucky, a team coached by Willard’s father, Ralph.
“We’re not that team,” the younger Willard said.
All five Pirates starters scored in double figures. Edwin had 15 points and had eight steals, while Patrick Auda and Cosby scored 10 points each.
Mercer also had all five of its starters register doubles. Justin Cecil paced the Bears with 18 points, while Langston Hall added 17. Bud Thomas scored 13, Jakob Gollon had 11 points and 11 rebounds, and Daniel Coursey had 10 and eight boards.
“That’s a good basketball team,” Willard said. “It’s the best team we’ve faced all year. If anything, give them a lot of credit.”
Neither team scored for nearly the first 3 minutes until Thomas made a 3-pointer for Mercer. The Bears led 6-4 through the first 5 minutes before the Pirates went on a 15-0 run.
Edwin began the run with a rebound basket and ended it with a long 3-pointer, giving the Pirates a 19-6 lead with 8:36 remaining in the half. Theodore and Cosby also hit shots from behind the arc during the stretch, in which the Pirates held the Bears scoreless for 7 minutes.
“When we got up 13, I thought we had a chance to pull away, but we had two turnovers in a row and it led to good shots for them,” Willard said.
Cecil nailed two consecutive 3-pointers and Coursey had a thunderous rebound dunk, cutting the lead to 19-14 with 6:09 left in the first half. The Bears hung tough for the remainder of the first half and trailed 31-29 on a basket by Gollon 12 seconds before intermission.
“I thought our kids played their tails off,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “We deserved to win. If we can play with that kind of energy all the time, we’ll be fine.”
The Pirates increased the lead to 37-31 in the second half on two consecutive baskets by Theodore, a driving layup and a rebound basket, with 17:39 remaining.
Mercer remained in the game thanks to two long-range shots from Travis Smith, a 3-pointer and a 2-point bomb from just inside the circle, with the second shot bringing the Bears to within 40-38 with 15:30 left.
Gollon’s steal off Pope, his layup and subsequent free throw enabled Mercer to regain the lead for the first time since the opening minutes, 49-48 with 11:13 remaining.
After the Pirates regained the lead for a little over a minute on baskets by Pope and Theodore, Mercer scored consecutive baskets by Cecil, a dunk and a jumper, giving the Bears a 53-52 lead with 8:42 left and causing Willard to call a timeout.
The Pirates took a 60-54 lead on a 3-pointer from Cosby, then Mercer answered with three straight baskets, the final one a power move by Thomas, to tie the game at 60-60 with 4:48 left.
Cecil canned a long 3-pointer with 15 seconds left that tied the game again at 68-68. Seton Hall had a chance to win it in regulation, but Theodore missed a driving shot in the lane as the buzzer sounded, sending the game to overtime.
“We had finals and got in late yesterday,” Hoffman said. “We had no practice, coming into a Big East arena. I’m not making excuses, but we came here and played hard. We just have to get better playing down the stretch. I think we’re going to get better if we play hard.”
Willard knows that the season gets tougher, with a trip to Dayton on tap for Wednesday.
“If we can learn how to win on the road now, I’ll be really happy,” Willard said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.