About an hour before tipoff, a man rolled a tire down Orchard Street, the day’s work done at Colon Tire Service. A parade of cars rode by — all with their tires, presumably attached — en route to the Prudential Center as he worked, oblivious to the game just a few blocks away. Unlike others of its ilk, this arena is not the centerpiece of some bougie urban renewal. Newark still owns its essence, the narrow neighborhood streets lined with row homes, their front stoops festooned with Christmas lights. It is a gritty city, unvarnished and proudly unscrubbed.
On this particular Thursday night, the city and the arena hosted one of its tenants, a school and a team cut of its cloth, in a game that could easily have been billed as a college athletics morality play. Seton Hall, the small Catholic school from decidedly urban South Orange, versus Texas, the very definition of everything is bigger in the Lone Star State, from Google-sprawling Austin. Longhorns football coach Steve Sarkisian has a contract worth $34.2 million, or one-tenth of Seton Hall’s entire $305 million university budget for 2020. Haves versus have nots, big versus small, the hare and the rabbit. Aesop could have written this fable.
The two tangoed all night, their fight paused only by an endless official review to recount team fouls. Eight lead changes, 10 ties, no double-digit leads. That kind of night. A dogged, unflinching defensive battle where every shot was contested, every rebound hard-earned.
It ended, as fables and morality tales often do, with an unexpected hero delivering the final message. Bryce Aiken, Harvard transfer, oft-injured, smallest player on the court, 0-of-7 from the arc and so off that one fan suggested repeatedly that he “stop shooting,’’ instead rose up at the top of the key. It was a quintessential no-no-yes shot, the crowd groaning as he lofted the ball above his head, and screaming in joy when it caught nothing but twine,
Aiken’s 3, followed by two equally stone-cold free throws, put the finishing touches on Seton Hall’s 64-60 win. It was a game that left Chris Beard, a man who built Texas Tech into a Final Four team on the backbone of toughness, launching Seton Hall into the national championship conversation. “I’ve always thought there are a dozen or so teams that have a chance to win a national championship,’’ he said. “They’re one of those teams.’’