The final whistle blew with the Seton Hall women’s basketball team 70-65 winners over Georgetown on Jan. 14; it was the team’s eighth game in 18 days. Students were preparing to start classes for the spring semester that upcoming Wednesday and the team had not gotten a formal practice in since the second-to-last day of final exams during the fall semester.
The team had pulled itself out from a 0-3 start to conference play, but was still 3-5, with players and coaches believing they could raise the bar even higher. The answer to those inclinations would come when the team had a week in the friendly confines of Walsh Gym to prepare for their next opponent, St. John’s, who was fourth in the conference at the time.
“I was really, really excited to play that St. John’s game,” coach Tony Bozzella said. “Not because ‘Are we gonna win or lose?’ just to see how the week of practice translated, and it did. You hear people say ‘Oh Ra [Donnaizha Fountain] left, you bonded together — it had nothing really to do with that. [It had to] do more with us practicing, everyone understanding their roles; everyone understanding the fact that, you know what, we need to be a team to be successful.”
Practice has not made perfect for Seton Hall, but about as close to perfect as could have been imagined. The Pirates are 4-1 over their last five games, having risen to fifth in the conference at 7-6. The last year-and-a-half may be a letdown to fans who saw the program reach the NIT in 2014, and the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years thereafter.
However, after a year where the team was inevitably going to struggle with seven freshmen and did with only four Big East wins, the Pirates may already be angling toward a return to the postseason after one year away.
“This is the fourth program I’ve taken over, and it was as hard as any of the programs I’ve taken over, because of where we were at,” Bozzella said. “I give the kids a lot of credit, but I give the staff a lot of credit for keeping us together. And then, we knew there would be a transition period; I’ve always told Mr. [Pat] Lyons [Director of Athletics] there’s gonna be a transitional period at some point. I didn’t know if it was going to be year two or year six or year three, and it was in year four.”
Despite a season last year that proved to be contrary to fans’ expectations with Bozzella at the helm, Seton Hall has shown this season – specifically in this five-game stretch – that the team is back to playing the brand of basketball that the Pirates’ fifth-year head coach and staff desire from their players.
As Bozzella will emphasize, a crucial reason behind his team’s success this year has been the exceptional unity of his coaching staff. One of the members of his staff, Nick DiPillo, is embracing his increased role as an assistant coach this year, and playing an important part in the team’s success alongside other assistant coaches Lauren DeFalco and Marissa Flagg.
“We’ve talked about it a lot, this staff has really done a great job working well together,” DiPillo said. “And, you know, even though the season has been up and down, I think one of the reasons that we’ve been able to get on a little bit of a high note right now is because of the cohesiveness and consistency of the staff.”
The recent run of form has not come without its tests, but, when adversity has presented itself, Seton Hall has fought – and more often than not – prevailed. Whether it be erasing a 20-point deficit to Creighton on Jan. 28 and forcing overtime, finding the answers to win against Xavier on Feb. 2 when the team was down seven in the second half or beating Butler on Feb. 4 when the team was trailing for over three quarters of the game, resiliency has not wavered.
It is that spirit that will put Bozzella in the conversation for Big East Coach of the Year, but unsurprisingly for the coach that put the spotlight on his staff after his 400th career win, no such concern for personal accolade exists. What will always be there for Bozzella, though, is an unreplaceable passion for the program.
“I was really emotional the last game in the locker-room,” Bozzella said. “I cried, I mean, I was just so proud of the kids, because they knew how hard a game [it was] and how hard they have worked. And I want to see them be successful because it’s really a nice bunch of kids. So, I’m just hoping any awards we get are based on the team, and for us together.”
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.