Before Seton Hall women’s basketball learned of its Women’s National Invitational Tournament first-round opponent, head coach Tony Bozzella and his staff were scouting and preparing. So, when Saint Joseph’s was announced as the school Seton Hall would line up against on March 14 at 7 p.m., the Pirates were ready.
“I’m familiar with Saint Joe’s and the A-10 [Atlantic 10 Conference],” Bozzella said. “We had an idea of who we might play so we looked at eight different teams, and the staff has done a great job. We had a good scout ready for the girls today.”
The Pirates wanted the postseason badly, especially after a tough 78-52 loss to DePaul in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals on March 4.
It was a somber moment for the team’s lone senior, JaQuan Jackson, who realized she may have just played her final game as a Pirate. Instead, she now has a chance to help the Pirates go on a run in the WNIT. With the team’s first contest being at home in Walsh Gymnasium, Jackson and her fellow Pirates will be in a familiar environment surrounded by their fan-base.
“Definitely home court advantage was a big thing,” Jackson said. “We were just really hoping we got into the tournament first of all, but having home court advantage, our crowd here, just being on our home floor is a good thing.”
The 16-15 Pirates hold an 11-6 record at home, which bodes well in their first-round matchup with Saint Joseph’s.
The Hawks of Saint Joseph’s experienced a fluctuating season that saw them incur a seven-game losing streak in non-conference play, but also an 8-2 finish before losing in the A-10 Championship game against George Washington, 65-49.
Saint Joseph’s features an experienced starting five consisting of two juniors, two seniors and a graduate student. The maturity of the squad was something Bozzella noticed.
“I’m very impressed with Saint Joe’s,” Bozzella said. “They have a lot of seniors, they’re very well-coached, they run their stuff. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
The Hawks are led by senior Chelsea Woods who averages more than 15 points and seven rebounds per game. Woods and the other four starters all average over nine points per game individually, with most of the Hawks’ scoring rooted in their starting five.
Saint Joseph’s additionally holds a five-rebound advantage over its opponents this season, which comes as a result of the impressive size of the team’s starting five, consisting of four players that are six feet or taller.
Despite the strengths that Saint Joseph’s brings to the table, Jackson wants the Pirates to keep their own charisma and identity in mind.
“I just want to make sure everyone is confident going in because we could make a run,” Jackson said. “Just go out and play our way. Don’t change for no one.”
The entirety of the WNIT will be a test for the Hall, but the team has its eyes set on a first-round win. The players and coaches deeply wish to continue the season, in part to give Jackson a proper Walsh send-off.
“I’m just looking for us to play as a group and a team, and just have fun,” Bozzella said. “Let’s send our senior out with another win on her home court. She’s a great kid and I’m very proud of Quanny [Jackson]. I know the girls and the staff want her to win this game here so she can continue her career.”
The selection to the WNIT also has long-term benefits for the young nucleus that surrounds Jackson, with the experience of postseason basketball an invaluable part of what lifted the program from a 2014 NIT appearance to a 2015 Big East regular-season title and back-to-back tournament appearances. Since Bozzella has arrived at Seton Hall, he has brought the program to the postseason in four of his five years.
“I just think this can really propel this program back to the heights it was and even higher because, we have a good team, we return four starters; we’re excited for the future,” Bozzella said. “But we’re excited for the present.”
Kyle Kasharian can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ItsKyleKash.