Seton Hall Athletics
The Seton Hall women’s basketball program has reached relevancy on the national stage under second-year head coach Tony Bozzella, as the Pirates have received votes in the AP Top 25 Poll for the first time in 20 years. But, SHU has an opportunity on Sunday afternoon to make a major statement, and it comes in South Orange against the 14th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.
The Hall (11-1) has won 10 straight games for the first time in 20 seasons and the program has 12 straight victories inside Walsh Gymnasium, dating back to last season. The Bulldogs (12-0) are one of seven unbeaten teams left in the country and are trying to go without a loss in non-conference play for only the fifth time in legendary head coach Andy Landers’ 36 years at the helm for the Bulldogs.
The Pirates have boasted the toughest backcourt trio in the Big East, as Tabatha Richardson-Smith (17.2 ppg), Daisha Simmons (16.8 ppg), and Ka-Deidre Simmons (16.6 ppg) are fourth, fifth, and sixth in scoring in the league.
“There’s no question that our guards are going to have to be great on Sunday,” Bozzella said. “We need to manage the game. Whoever commits fewer turnovers will win the game.”
It's Seton Hall’s fast pace that has been the biggest key for the Pirates’ scoring, and the way that the tempo starts is with turnovers. The Pirates are forcing 19.6 per game and have a +6.50 margin. The blue and white are averaging 75.6 points per game this season, which is good for second in the Big East. The +13.4 scoring margin is second in the conference as well. After a weak shooting year last season, Bozzella has worked on getting The Hall’s percentage up from the field, and the Pirates have down just that, shooting 43 percent from the field.
Georgia is only shooting 30 percent from deep and has hit 54 three’s to SHU’s 76.
“We made shots against Illinois, and that’s why we were able to win,” Bozzella said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as that, really.” The Hall toppled the Fighting Illini, 82-72, on Dec. 9 in the Pirates’ most recent notable test. SHU’s lone loss came against the ranked opponent that the Pirates have faced this season in an 89-87 defeat at the hands of then No. 17 West Virginia.
While Seton Hall is led primarily in the backcourt, Georgia has an extremely well-balanced attack, with five players averaging at least 8.3 points per game. It is the Bulldogs’ defense that has to be something the Pirates aim to get past when on the break.
While SHU is allowing teams to score 62.2 points per game, the Bulldogs are only allowing 47.9 points, which is the fourth-best mark in the country. The Pirates’ trio of guards is combining to score 50.2 points per contest.
Leading the way for UGA is junior Shacobia Barbee, who is averaging 13.9 points and 7.1 boards per contest. The 5-foot-10 guard is expected to be matched up against Richardson-Smith on Sunday. Barbee leads the SEC in seven statistical categories and leads the team with 28 minutes per game. Junior guard Tiaria Griffin is second on the team with 10.8 points per contest and will counter against Daisha Simmons. Ka-Deidre Simmons certainly has a scoring advantage over Bulldogs point guard Marjorie Butler, who is just over four points and three boards per game.
Down low, The Hall’s lack of depth in the frontcourt is going to have to find a way to match what Georgia brings on the glass. Senior Krista Donald stands at 5-foot-11 and is tough to handle down low, but the Pirates’ Bra’Shey Ali is nearly at a double-double per game and is on this week’s Big East Honor Roll for the first time in her career.
“They (Georgia) are really good in the paint, and if we don’t handle our business down low, they’re going to control the game,” Ali said. “We have to be ready to defend and stay out of foul trouble.”
Ali is joined in the paint by Janee Johnson, who has contributed nearly eight points and over six boards per contest. Johnson has also stretched the floor with a 10-of-32 mark from three-point land. She will guard Merritt Hempe, who has been at over eight and five per game for UGA.
The Bulldogs bring some depth off the bench as well, as Mackenzie Engram has checked in as a back-up and has contributed over eight per game as a true freshman.
The Pirates started the season averaging over 20 fouls per game, but it has been a stressed point to try to keep the contact clean in the paint especially. Facing a Georgia team that has a +7.7 rebounding margin with 42.2 boards per game is going to give SHU a tall task all afternoon.
This will be the first non-conference home game for the Pirates since they hosted #24 South Carolina and lost 55-42 on Dec. 2, 2012.
“This game’s hype is a tribute to how far the program has come and how quickly the players have bought in,” Bozzella said. “We are really looking forward to playing this game in front of our fans.”
With the Big East having the sixth-best RPI in the country currently, the room for The Hall to get quality wins in conference play isn’t huge. SHU has one top 50 win over No. 47 Creighton, but one over a top-15 Bulldogs team could do wonders for the Pirates’ hopes of competing in The Big Dance in March. Seton Hall has had a remarkable non-conference slate, recording two Big Ten wins over Penn State and Illinois. Before this year, the program had not done that since 2007.
“It’s a stage like Sunday that takes confidence,” Ka-Deidre Simmons said. “We have to play our game and make them run. If we can stay efficient with the basketball and play together, I know that Sunday could be a great day.”
John Fanta can be reached at email@example.com and @John_Fanta. Follow him on Sunday for updates.