As the Seton Hall women’s basketball team heads into the last weekend of the regular season with a game against Xavier on Feb. 28 and one against Butler on March 1, the race in the Big East is as tight as ever.
Currently, there are five teams placed third through seventh that are within two games grasp of one another as the season comes to a close. Even the second place team, Marquette, despite being out of range of Seton Hall, is a half of a game up on Butler and one-and-a-half games up on Villanova. The conference is in a near deadlock, and the all-important seeding for the Big East Tournament in Chicago can still be altered.
For Pirates head coach Tony Bozzella, who has led the Pirates to two NCAA Tournament berths and three NIT invitations in seven seasons, this parity is a tribute to how much talent there is within the Big East and how much the conference has grown as a whole.
“I just think we have a lot of talent in our league,” Bozzella said. “I think [second place] through [seventh place] just any day, we’re beating each other up – left right, right, left. When your best players come to play, that’s the teams that are winning. It’s hard for your best players to play some- times because the other players are so good. That’s what we really need to establish – get- ting our core players to play really well.”
Seton Hall certainly has a chance to make a splash against Butler in the final game of the season with the teams so close. However, Bozzella does not take Xavier lightly despite the Musketeers being tied for the worst record in the conference, 2-14, with Georgetown and Providence.
“[Xavier] beat us twice last year, so I’m petrified of them,” Bozzella said. “We just have to take each game one at a time. We have got to find a way to stop what [other teams] do best.”
Bozzella is particularly concerned with stopping Xavier’s three-ball. In order to win, the Pirates will have to be keen on the perimeter. Then, it’s Butler, who Bozzella notes as having a physical and tough zone. The mantras will certainly shift from game to game, but the ultimate goal will remain to get two wins and jump to a more favorable tournament seed.
Winning an important string of games is nothing new for Seton Hall. From Jan. 31 to Feb. 7, it rang off three wins in a row, including the first two on the road, after a sobering loss to St. John’s by 16 at home. The Pirates were able to overcome Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette in a pivotal point of their season, and that magic will have to return in the next two games in order for it to be a confident flight to the Windy City.
“I’m really proud of the kids because we came off a hard road trip at Marquette,” Bozzella said. “I met with them and asked what we could do better, and they all took their own ownership. That showed me that we have a chance at a really good team. I think that’s why we played a lot better. Even the DePaul game where we lost at home, that was a great game. We had our chance to win, then we go and win at Providence. We lost to Creighton, but they’re a good team too. It’s hard to win on the road. It’s hard to win. We’re in a good spot, we have to stay healthy and we have to find a way to make the game winning play – it doesn’t have to be at the end of the game.”
The Villanova game resulted in a 65-63 win thanks to a late putback by Preseason Player of the Year Shadeen Samuels. Earlier in the year, Samuels missed time due to an injury and the team was forced to step up in her absence like the men’s team did without Myles Powell. Samuels is far back and healthy now, but the time off proved how much of a key cog she truly is for this team down the stretch.
“[Samuels] is important not just because of her scoring but just having her on the floor,” Bozzella said. “Her confidence really helps the team’s confidence, and I think that she just lends a lot of experience out there. Obviously talent, but the experience really helps us a lot.”
Samuels is one of three seniors on the team alongside Barbara Johnson and Alexis Lewis. Despite time being limited, however, Bozzella is hoping to make the most of a run with her and the other old- er members of the team before it’s all over.
“I’m going to miss [Samuels] a lot,” Bozzella said. “She’s a really wonderful person and one of my favorite people that I’ve ever coached. It’s bitter- sweet but hopefully I’ve got a bunch of more games to coach her.”
Coincidentally, it was John- son and Lewis, among other, who stepped up this season when Samuels was down and beyond. Those two round out the top five in points per game with 8.7 and 12.7, respectively. Desiree Elmore has 12.9 points per game and Samuels is at an even 14.
Sitting fourth on that list is Mya Jackson, a freshman. Lauren Park-Lane is also sixth. Those two have burst onto the scene for the Pirates this year to add another crucial layer of depth and will look to be in the fold and growing for years to come.
“Barbara [Johnson] and Alexis [Lewis] have had really good years,” Bozzella said. “Our two freshmen have played wonderfully – Lauren Park-Lane and Mya Jackson. They’ve just been wonderful people to coach, and they’re getting better every day. I’m high on both of them.”
Looking ahead, Bozzella believes that it is likely difficult for the Pirates to make the NCAA Tournament at large after the loss to St. John’s. However, the conference tournament, despite a large number of formidable teams and the always difficult and home-based DePaul Blue Demons, the sky is the limit for the program.
“I think the ceiling is the NCAA Tournament,” Bozzella said. “We already qualified for the NIT, and it’s hard to get into the postseason. People forget that most of the teams in our league haven’t gotten into the postseason. I think the ceiling is what these kids make of it. I think we can win a Big East Tournament champion- ship, but I think we can also struggle. The teams are so equal.”
As Bozzella looks to add to his resume and bring the program back to the post- season, however, it is easy to forget how enjoyable the job can be. Division I basketball will always shine a spotlight on coaches and players alike, but Bozzella’s consistent attitude and relationship with his players has never taken away from the joys of basketball in South Orange.
“This is one of the most enjoyable groups of kids that I’ve coached in my seven years here,” Bozzella said. “They’re nice people and they work hard. I’m really proud of them for what they’ve accomplished both on and off the court.”
Kevin Kopf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @Kev- inKopfHWH.