Originally posted on College Hoops Digest  |  Last updated 3/26/14
Seton Hall's Women's Team/nj.comWith Sunday’s thrilling 75-74 WNIT 2nd Round win, the Pirates will make their first WNIT Sweet 16 appearance in the program’s history. They now have to get ready for legendary C. Vivian Stringer and Rutgers (Thursday, 7 p.m., RAC)It’s safe to say that Ka-Deidre Simmons has been through a lot. The junior point guard has had to stick with a program that has had two head coaches leave since 2010 and a first-year leader emerge for her junior season. And when first-year coach Tony Bozzella walked into the Seton Hall women’s basketball offices in August, there was an uneasy feeling in the room as the program was going through another transition. But it has been her leadership that has made her the first All-Big East First Team player for the program since 1996.Simmons willed the Pirates past Princeton in the 2nd Round of the WNIT, scoring 23 points in a 75-74 victory. “She has led us to new heights,” Bozzella says. “Her will is what kept us in that game. I haven’t coached a more resilient group ever.”The Pirates needed all of the toughness that they have to get by the Tigers, playing without a full-strength Simmons in the final possessions. The guard went down with cramping in both legs, leading to two free throw attempts by Bozzella’s recruit, Tara Inman. “Didi’s been the key to get everyone bought in to what we are trying to do,” Bozzella said following the game. In a way, the game was handed off to Inman, who had been a reserve in the backcourt for The Hall behind Simmons, Alexis Brown, and company. A recruit of Bozzella’s, Inman stepped up and knocked down both of the freebies smoothly, tying the game up at 72 apiece. When the Pirates found themselves down a deuce again with just over 20 seconds left, it was another shot of youth that lifted the blue and white. Sidney Cook caught a deflected shot from Simmons and went up for an and-one lay-in, producing an old fashioned three-point play. It was another clutch shot, this time coming from a redshirt freshman. The Tigers had two opportunities in the final nine seconds, but were turned back in a rowdy Walsh Gymnasium.“It wasn’t easy to get the girls to buy in to what I wanted to do with the program,” Bozzella said. “They had finished strongly under Anne (Donovan), and had a win over Rutgers, so it was hard for them to restart after things looked as if they were turning the corner.”Look now, and that meeting in August is long gone for a team that will now face Rutgers in Piscataway on Thursday for a shot to reach the WNIT Elite Eight. Seven years ago, the Pirates made only the third WNIT appearance in the program’s history. Rutgers was doing bigger things. The Scarlet Knights were on their way to a national championship appearance after beating LSU in the Final Four.In just a year, Bozzella has given the Pirates their first 20-win season since 1995, the year in which Stringer was named the head coach of the Scarlet Knights. Thursday’s rivalry match-up will mark the 34th game that The Hall has played this season, giving the program the most games it has played in a season since 1978-79.“We look at this match-up, and I know that we will be in this game,” Bozzella said. “This is as resilient of a group that I have coached, and I have confidence in them.”The increase in mental toughness that Bozzella and his coaching staff have displayed has produced an attitude that says “there’s no turning back,” as Cook mentioned after Sunday’s one-point win over Princeton.The Pirates meet a Rutgers team that is making its first ever WNIT appearance. Stringer has surpassed the 900-win mark on her career and has established herself as one of the great coaches in the game. Last season’s meeting between the two brought a shocker at Walsh Gym, as Seton Hall prevailed 45-42. While the Scarlet Knights lead the series with a 32-8 advantage, the Pirates’ did snap a skid going back to 2002 last season.Sophomore forward Kahleah Copper led Rutgers past Harvard in a 63-52 win Monday night to advance to the 3rd Round. Copper ended up with 19 points and 12 boards as the Scarlet Knights scored 21 points off 20 turnovers while also committing just eight. Rutgers junior forward Betnijah Laney scored 17, but it was Rutgers’ ball movement that left its mark, with the Scarlet Knights recording 15 assists on the game.The key will be physicality, there is no secret. Rutgers hasforced the opposition into at least 20 turnovers 15 times in 33 games. “We have to figure out a way to score,” Bozzella added. “This is a hard-nosed team, but we’re up for the challenge. I won’t shy away from saying it’s a big game.”The Scarlet Knights show the physicality in the numbers. Stringer’s team is shooting 28 percent from beyond the three-point arc at 43-of-149 while at nearly 45 percent from two-point range. With a +2.2 turnover margin, Rutgers has brought pressure throughout the season. The question becomes whether Seton Hall can do so to them.While Thursday’s season will have to end for one team, this process is not all for the here and now. “The goal is to be in the NCAA Tournament next year,” Simmons says. That’s a goal that The Hall has not been near since the mid 90’s, but that is what is expected of a program that has sat through lows.by John Fanta, Big East Reporter, @JohnFanta13
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