The Pirates’ recent Midwest road-trip was akin to Sisyphus rolling his large boulder up an insurmountable hill. Tony Bozzella’s team trailed for almost 84 of the 85 minutes of game-time but took last-minute leads in both games.
It did not matter. Seton Hall lost each by one possession, the latter of which was a one-point overtime defeat.
“You know, we were really down and depressed,” Bozzella admitted on Sunday. “We lost two games at the buzzer, two games that we had won.”
Seton Hall’s shooting was dreadful in those two games away from Walsh Gym. The Blue and White shot 15.2 percent from three on Jan. 4 at Butler and 33.3 percent overall on Jan. 6 at Xavier.
Unexpected outbursts like Kaela Hilaire’s 15 points in Hinkle and Selena Philoxy’s 21 rebounds in the Cintas Center gave the unrelenting South Orange side a chance to steal both games.
And yet, Seton Hall did not, meaning that this past Friday and Sunday were bordering on must-win territory, considering the team stares down its toughest road-trip of the season next weekend.
The team handled Creighton on Friday morning, and on Sunday, with the historic gym amply-loud, Seton Hall pestered Providence to the tune of 20 Friar turnovers, winning 79-73.
Another double-double for Shadeen Samuels, who was not included in the 11-women Preseason All-Big East Team – a list that excluded Seton Hall entirely. The Pirates now travel to Milwaukee to face No. 15 Marquette, a program that had three players in that All-Big East Team, plus the Preseason Player of the Year, Allazia Blockton.
Driven by that core: Blockton, Erika Davenport, Natisha Hiedeman and Amani Wilborn – all of whom are seniors – the Golden Eagles possess perhaps the most talented starting five in the new era of the Big East.
That group has a particular connection to Seton Hall, though. It was their freshman year, Jan. 3, 2016, and the NCAA Tournament-bound Pirates dismantled them, 99-68. When asked at Big East Media Day about their memories against Seton Hall, that first memory inside Walsh was immediately brought up by the group with a good dose of laughter.
“Every time we play Seton Hall, it’s a scrappy game,” Blockton said. “Very scrappy, very physical. The first time, at Seton Hall, we lost to them by 30. And then we came back and we won at home.”
“And we played them first game of the [Big East] Tournament, and then we lost,” Davenport added. “It was a heated game back and forth, and we lost in the last couple minutes.”
That season, the young Golden Eagles finished 14-16, following a 9-23 season the year prior. Head Coach Carolyn Kieger, a 2006 graduate of Marquette, was putting in the groundwork for a future powerhouse.
It happened so quickly. Marquette arrived at the top of the conference just as Seton Hall descended for its uncertain rebuild the following season. Kieger’s team finished 26-8 in 2016-17, winning the Big East Tournament and earning a 5-seed for the Big Dance.
Last season, the team was Big East regular season champion and made the NCAA Tournament once again. This season, expectations are higher than ever. The Golden Eagles, absurdly, have five 1,000-point scorers on their roster, including senior guard Danielle King.
Tony Bozzella and the Pirates have to hope that their trajectory in some way parallels what occurred with Kieger and the Golden Eagles. A 12-win improvement was possible for Marquette, so, why can’t Seton Hall improve by eight or nine?
The sixth-year Pirates head coach remains optimistic that his new blueprint for Seton Hall basketball: fast, quick, three-point driven, will pay off in the long term.
“We’re going to play this way,” Bozzella said after Seton Hall’s win over St. John’s to open conference play. “Hopefully, in five years, when you have this interview, we’re going to play at this pace.”
And that may be, but 2018-19 remains an important season to capitalize on, with seniors like Nicole Jimenez, Inja Butina, Victoria Cardaci and Kaity Healy.
As impactful as the four are on the court – Jimenez and Butina offer 13.1 and 10.9 points per game, Cardaci 7.1 points per game and Healy a better than 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio – the leadership and stability they provide the locker room is even more valuable.
Next season, without that group, even if statistical production is replaced, the team may not come together as it has this season.
So, with the future uncertain, can Jan. 18 prove to be a seminal moment in the Seton Hall-Marquette paradigm? When these two met last February in Walsh Gym, the Pirates were the ones that lost by almost 30. This Friday, inside Al McGuire Center in Milwaukee, it’s seemingly their turn to push back.
Easier said than done.
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.