Women’s basketball chaneling its strengths ahead of Big East Tournament

With 29 games in the book, the Seton Hall women’s basketball team is headed to Chicago for the Big East Tournament from March 3 to 6, where the Pirates hope to take part in three more.

The Big East Tournament is always a challenge, but the bracket is even more difficult for a reeling Pirates team. The Hall ended its 2017-18 regular season on a five-game losing streak, its longest of the season.

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The end-of-season slide meant the Pirates entered the postseason as the No. 7 team in the conference, setting up an opening round matchup against Xavier on March 3. The winner of that game will face No. 2 seed DePaul the following day.

Seton Hall swept the No. 10 seed Musketeers in their two matchups this season, a 62-51 victory in Cincinnati on Jan. 10 and a 58-53 victory in South Orange on Feb. 2. Both victories featured strong performances from Inja Butina, as the junior guard racked up six points, five assists and four steals in the first matchup and dropped a team-high 17 points in the second.

If the Pirates can pull off a third victory over Xavier, they will face their toughest challenge of the season against a well-rested DePaul team, playing in their home city of Chicago. The Pirates dropped both matches against DePaul this season, with the first being an 88-69 defeat in the Windy City back on Dec. 28. The second was the Pirates’ last game of the regular season, one in which they went toe-to-toe with the Blue Demons and lost by just four points.

Ending the season with a close finish against a highly-ranked opponent may signify a shift in momentum for the Hall. But, if the Pirates want a chance of redemption against DePaul – and a shot at winning the tournament – they need to play to their strengths and put together its best three games of the season.

When asked what the team’s greatest strength is, coach Tony Bozzella did not hesitate.

“I think our defense, when we’re playing with passion and toughness,” Bozzella said.

While the team allowed over 70 points in three of the last four games, the Pirates still rank in the top half of the conference in scoring defense, allowing 65.3 points per game. The Pirates put up that number with their homestretch of the regular season not being the easiest, as they finished with four of the top five teams in the conference in Villanova, St. John’s, Marquette and DePaul.

“We took a step forward, but we have to take more steps forward heading into the Big East Tournament,” Bozzella said.

Bozzella also believes the team needs to improve on interior shooting, as he noted the team shot under 41 percent from two-point range against DePaul on Feb. 25.

Fortunately for the Pirates, they have a strong interior scorer back in the rotation. Taylor Brown, who missed over a month of action after suffering a knee injury warming up before the Villanova game on Jan. 12, made her return to action for the Feb. 23 game against Marquette and also saw time against DePaul. She played 36 minutes combined between the two games, averaging 12 points on 65 percent shooting.

Brown, a 6-foot redshirt sophomore, is a force to be reckoned with on the inside. She ended the season as the team’s second leading scorer with 10.1 points per game and she looked strong in her return.

“She brings a lot of energy and a lot of toughness,” Bozzella said. “We had some kids step up for a period of time, but then over the long term you need to get that kid back. I’m proud of the girls to get us to a certain level, and now hopefully Taylor can take us to the next level. It’s almost like we added a new recruit for the Big East playoffs.”

With Brown back in the rotation, the team is at full strength. With an extra week of practice set up prior to the Big East Tournament, the team can work on righting the ship defensively. The road will be challenging, but the Pirates must remember their strengths to make a run.

Matt Lapolla can be reached at matthew.lapolla@student.shu.edu or on Twitter @MatthewLapolla.