EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP)—Donald Copeland thought for a second before answering the question about his last college home game.
“This was so big for a lot of reasons. There was so much at stake, the Big East tournament, the NCAA tournament,” he said. “We had to play desperate and we did.”
The senior guard scored half of his 28 points in the final 6 1/2 minutes and Seton Hall snapped a three-game losing streak with a 72-62 victory over Cincinnati on Tuesday night.
Kelly Whitney, the only other senior on Seton Hall, added 18 points and 11 rebounds for the Pirates (17-10, 8-7), who clinched a berth in next week’s Big East tournament. Seton Hall was tied for seventh place with the Bearcats (18-11, 7-8), who are still one of eight teams trying to earn the final five berths in the conference tournament.
What made Seton Hall’s losing streak even more frustrating was that the losses were to Notre Dame, St. John’s and DePaul, all teams below them in the league standings.
“We want to play in the NCAA tournament so this game was huge,” said Copeland, who did play in the NCAA tournament last year. “Kelly and I had to make sure the other guys knew we couldn’t ever quit. We huddled when we had to let them know. We had to want it more.”
Copeland hit two of his four 3-pointers in the 13-1 run that gave the Pirates a 59-52 lead with 4:36 to play. Jihad Muhammad, who led the Bearcats with 21 points, hit a 3 to start a 5-0 run that made it a two-point game with 4 minutes to play.
Copeland made four free throws in a 7-0 run that put Seton Hall ahead 66-57 with 1:25 left.
Muhammad hit a long 3-pointer 10 seconds later to make it a five-point game, but Copeland then went 6-for-6 from the free throw line to give the Pirates their biggest lead, 72-60 with 34 seconds to go.
“Donald hit some big shots and then we made stops when we had to,” Whitney said. “We were keeping everyone together right to the last minute. We climbed and maintained.”
James White had 17 points for Cincinnati, which had its best conference game of the season from 3-point range (9-for-18). But the Bearcats, who entered the game leading the Big East in free throw shooting at 76.5 percent, were the same 9-for-18 from the line.
“We were up five or six and then there was that sense of urgency that seniors feel and Copeland and Whitney stepped up,” Cincinnati coach Andy Kennedy said. “We always seemed to be a step late going for loose balls and then they started attacking us and had us on our heels.”
Kennedy didn’t hide his disappointment in his team’s effort.
“I don’t know how a team with what we had on the line could approach the game as passively as we did and let them be the better team down the stretch,” he said. “We came in with some work to do and we leave with some work to do.”
Copeland was 10-for-12 from the line for Seton Hall, which was 22-for-28 on free throws.
Whitney and Copeland both went 7-for-15 from the field in their last game in Continental Airlines Arena.
“Our seniors didn’t quit,” Pirates coach Louis Orr said. “When we needed energy, stops, baskets, just about anything, they stepped up.”
The Pirates close the regular season on Friday at No. 8 Pittsburgh.
“We just need to keep winning and now we can do it in the Big East tournament,” Whitney said.
Cincinnati, which lost 74-72 to No. 4 Villanova on Thursday, plays host to No. 16 West Virginia on Saturday. The Bearcats can qualify for the Big East tournament even if they lose that game.
“We have another game against another quality team,” Kennedy said. “Now we’ll have to see how the kids will respond. The quality of this league from top to bottom won’t let you back your way into success. We lost a golden opportunity in our last game. We were just trying to hold on and back our way in and that’s not going to happen.”