The Marquette Golden Eagles – now an AP top-10 team in women’s college basketball – may possess the most loaded roster the Big East has seen since its 2013 reconfiguration. The Pirates went face-to-face with the Golden Eagles on Friday and lost by 36 points.
However, when Tony Bozzella’s staff and players boarded for Newark on Sunday, the mood had been transformed from sorrowful to celebratory, thanks to a 84-73 win against then-No. 24 DePaul earlier that afternoon.
The result was trumpeted as the program’s first win over a ranked opponent since 2016, but in actuality, the outcome was noteworthy for a different reason.
Firstly, Butler, who received 20 Top 25 votes last week before falling in triple overtime at Providence, still look like the clear second choice in the conference, and the Pirates were one possession away from winning in Hinkle on Jan. 4. Point being, this Seton Hall team already proved it can punch at the weight of borderline Top 25 teams.
So, more than taking down a ranked opponent, the performance on Sunday was assurance for the sixth-year Pirates head coach, who has routinely used the Blue Demons and their 33rd-year head coach Doug Bruno as a model to which he aims to emulate.
As Bozzella will point to, Bruno very rarely secures a top-100 recruit out of high school. He brings in talented prospects, but not those that Final Four programs like UConn, Notre Dame, Louisville and the like are pursuing.
Instead, he identifies good character players with upside who fit into his style of basketball – a formula that has earned him 681 wins and led DePaul to 16 straight NCAA Tournaments.
After a two-year absence from the tournament, Bozzella – who is transparent about the challenges of recruiting to a small Big East school – sees this as the best method to make Seton Hall a perennial NCAA team once again.
And if prior to the season Bozzella had pictured an ideal way for this new method to come to fruition, the vision would have looked a lot like Sunday’s win. And so, who more fitting to do it against than Bruno and DePaul?
The usual contributors in Nicole Jimenez, Inja Butina and Shadeen Samuels – not top-100 players, but two junior college alums and a modestly-heralded high school recruit – poured in 48 points. The trifecta is far beyond modest.
But on top of their efforts, the performances of transfers Victoria Cardaci (Clemson) and Desiree Elmore (Syracuse) showed why Bozzella and his staff converted to a fast tempo, three-point centric offense.
Before leaving for Milwaukee last Thursday, the three-point specialist Cardaci was shooting a mere 17 percent from beyond the arc in five Big East games. She appeared in only nine minutes of a Jan. 13 win over Providence, but on Friday in Al McGuire Center, the fifth-year player made four threes and totaled 16 points – a rare bright spot in the 96-60 loss.
Two days later, she played all 40 minutes, converting four crucial three-pointers while posting a second consecutive double-digit scoring game.
Meanwhile, in the versatile 5-foot-10 Elmore, the Pirates posed an unsolvable match-up problem for the Blue Demons. The sophomore provided a blend of low-post dirty work – grabbing five rebounds – and shot-making ability – going 6-for-10 from the field.
With just over two minutes left in the first half and Seton Hall trailing 35-28, Elmore made a layup and then chased down an unsuspecting Rebekah Dahlman on the ensuing inbound. Elmore plucked the ball away from the DePaul guard, dove to the ground and jump-started a Pirates possession that ended with a silky Jimenez three, which cut the deficit to 35-33.
The Pirates took the lead 15.6 seconds before the break, after trailing by 12 with under nine minutes to go in the same quarter.
Over the course of those opening 20 minutes, Seton Hall wore out a DePaul team that initially looked primed for a routine home win. The comeback was a result of the Pirates’ new hyperactive style of play – a philosophy that maximizes the talent of core players like Jimenez, Butina and Samuels, and newcomers like Cardaci and Elmore.
Looking at Bruno’s DePaul program that year-after-year succeeds without upper echelon players, Bozzella and his staff pivoted away from chasing the best recruits and began emphasizing those who can execute in a certain way.
And in many aspects, on Sunday, the Pirates beat the Blue Demons at their own game.
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.