Seton Hall had fallen down the rabbit hole.
With a record of 36-86 from 2010-2013 under two different coaches, the Pirates were forgotten for a time at the bottom of the Big East Conference.
But the fall after coach Tony Bozzella’s arrival almost three years ago, Seton Hall began the journey back. They reached pinnacles quickly, like a program-record 28 wins last season and an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. That followed a 20-win year and a trip to the WNIT in Bozzella’s first outing. Right now the Pirates are 16-4 overall and 6-3 in conference, tied for third with Villanova. They have popped into the AP top 25 poll twice – once after a Thanksgiving tournament and again on Jan. 4 – and have been in and out of the USA Today top 25 coaches poll, including this week, as they are ranked 25th.
There is a lot of season left, however, and much work to be done, as Bozzella readily admits. Yet, the unique team he has stitched together, which features an unlikely cast of athletes from widely-ranging backgrounds, seems equipped to handle any pressure. Senior leaders Tabatha Richardson-Smith and Tiffany Jones head up a close squad that are thriving because they have become like a family.
The confident holdover
Prolific guard Richardson-Smith is the lone player remaining from the Anne Donovan era, which spanned three years. The Texas native has a calm disposition that belies her years, both on and off the court. She slashes to the basket at will and is the team’s leading scorer this year, yet again, averaging 19.2 points per game.
Richardson-Smith was the Big East’s third-best scorer as both a sophomore and a junior, and has broke many a Seton Hall record. But what many don’t know is that she notched these achievements while carrying a full class load and raising an infant her first years as a Pirate.
Just before Richardson-Smith left home for college, her partner had a son. The couple decided Richardson-Smith would take baby Taytan with her to quiet South Orange, N.J.
“I lived by myself off campus,” Richardson-Smith said. “If I had to bring him to practice, it was understood.”
But easy, it was not.
“Taytan is not a good baby,” Richardson-Smith said. “He’s really bad.”
Her school work became a bit of a team project.
“I honestly never did my homework at home – I did it all at school,” she said. “My teammates helped me.”
Richardson-Smith made it work. She started to improve her game under Bozzella, and she made the honor roll last season. Then Taytan went back to Texas to live with his birth mother before this school year, leaving Richardson-Smith to focus solely on her game. She played in New York City’s infamous West Fourth League last summer, and continues to work hard in practice.
“Every day I try to get better at shooting. I never try to settle for where I’m at now,” she said. “I don’t change much, I just try to work at ball handling.”
Bozzella said he is not surprised that Richardson-Smith was able to pull off being a college athlete while parenting a baby.
“In 24 years, I’ve never coached a more confident young woman,” he said. “She believes we can beat anyone; she believes she is the best player. She raised her son because she believed she could.”
Richardson-Smith, who was entering her sophomore year when Bozzella took over the program, was with the new coaches “every second of the way,” he said.
“She has turned this program into a national program, and one which has a lot of pride and determination,” Bozzella said. “Not only is she confident, but she’s a leader that her teammates look up to.”
Currently, Richardson-Smith is the Big East Conference’s top scorer.
Jones is an extreme odds-beater.
She grew up in Manhattan, the youngest of 14 children in a single-parent home with no father around. Robert “Apache” Paschall became her AAU coach and surrogate dad, and along with her older siblings, steered her away from trouble and bad peer influences. Jones played for Paschall at Nazareth High School, guiding the team to a class AA state title in 2011.
She committed to Syracuse but didn’t qualify academically, so she enrolled at Tallahassee Community College. Midway through basketball season, Paschall died after a brief battle with skin cancer. Jones was devastated.
“Losing him was very hard on me, because he had a big impact on my life,” Jones said. “He was a father figure, and even though he was hard on me, he believed in me.”
“When Apache died, I didn’t think I’d be back in any school.”
But she did return – to ASA junior college in Brooklyn – whose team was coached by Paschall’s cousin and longtime assistant coach Thomas Davis. Jones had just got settled in when tragedy struck again: her mother died. She missed about a week with the team, and when she returned she began playing some of her best basketball ever. Inside, however, she was still hurting.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I had to find myself; I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself,” Jones said.
Davis contacted Bozzella about Jones playing at Seton Hall, and Bozzella put assistant coach Tiffany Jones-Smart on it.
“Coach Jones reached out to me – she called me,” Jones said. “She asked me if I wanted to go to SHU. So I went, and coach Jones became a mentor to me. I didn’t want people to have sympathy for me.”
Jones arrived for the 2014-2015 season with two years of eligibility left, but she missed the first 11 games of the season while she worked on becoming academically eligible. When she did take the court she began contributing right away, averaging 7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while confounding opponents with her guard and forward skills.
This year Jones is both the team and the Conference’s leading rebounder, at 8.7 boards per game. She also tosses in 10.2 games per contest. And maybe more importantly, Jones is majoring in criminal justice and pulled a 3.6 GPA last semester.
“I’ve never seen that before in my life,” she said.
Bozzella appreciates Jones both on and off the court.
“She is a unique kid,” he said. “She’s an inner city kid who puts her arm around the white Midwesterner teammate. She’s the team entertainer, the singer on the bus. She’s very positive, says hello and good morning.”
“She’s come such a long way, and she has a wealth of potential in basketball. There is still so much more room for her to grow as a player.”
The optimism is in Jones’ voice. Both she and Richardson-Smith are hopeful they’ll be drafted into the WNBA in a few months. Jones said she doesn’t dwell on her losses.
“I like to be around positive people, and I like to smile and have fun,” she said. “I don’t like to mope. I’m strong, I get up every day. I can get my diploma.”
A “family man”
Prior to his arrival at Seton Hall, Bozzella spent 11 years at Iona College as head coach, following opening stints at Southampton College and LIU Brooklyn. He is known for creating what players and colleagues call “a family atmosphere” on his teams, perhaps best evidenced now by second-leading scorer Aleesha Powell’s presence. She played for him at Iona, transferred to Seton Hall and sat out a year to play her final year for the Pirates.
Another senior starter and top three scorer, Shakena Richardson, is a transfer from Florida State. The entire roster is a mixture of urban and suburban athletes, from all parts of the United States.
Stephanie Oliver, who was Bozzella’s assistant coach for two years before leaving to become head coach at LIU Brooklyn, says his appeal begins with his warmth.
“He has a family first mentality,” Oliver said. “He treats both staff and team with respect, and establishes a family culture. It’s ‘leave no man behind,’ which is why he’s always been so successful.”
Oliver said Bozzella believes in building up young people by being truthful with them.
“He believes in every kid. They sit at the table and talk,” she said. “Everything is very transparent, and though sometimes you don’t want to hear things, everyone’s very honest with each other.”
Bozzella also offers support where others might not, Oliver said.
“Tabatha and Tiffany, especially, are really good – they just needed someone to believe in them,” Oliver said. “Tony makes every athlete an integral part of the team. Whether they’re a redshirt or a starter, they’ve got a role.”
As Oliver has fought her way through her first season as a head coach, Bozzella has been there.
“Before every game we text,” she said. “The whole staff came to our game against St. John’s.”
That approach has definitely worked for Jones.
“The players around me, the coaches, they believe in me. They tell me I’m a great player, and give me my confidence,” she said. “Tony, that’s a family man. He wants you to go out there and run the sets, have fun, come in an adjust. He’s a cool man.”
From here until the end of the season
Bozzella, whose graduated from Seton Hall, had a tough adjustment period upon arrival. He said he and his staff initially encountered resistance and doubt from both players and community alike. Last season four seniors graduated, bringing a whole new wave of skepticism about how this year’s Pirates would fare. But so far, they have exceeded expectations.
“We are fighters, we play hard, and our goal is to win,” Bozzella said. “This year’s Big East is as good as I’ve ever seen it, and we’ve been ranked as high as we have ever been. We’re just trying to take it one game at a time; it’s such a long season.”
Richardson-Smith said she tells her team never to let their guards down.
“I’ve told the rest of the team that on any night, any team can win,”: she said. “They look at me crazy, but it’s the truth. Even the teams who aren’t the best can beat those that are. Anybody can beat anybody.”
At the same time, Seton Hall has a great shot this year because of their cohesion.
“This is the most team-oriented we’ve been since I’ve been here,” Richardson-Smith said. “We’re all like sisters. We have five seniors, and we try to make everyone feel comfortable – even the ones who are shy.”
Jones said the Pirates have great chemistry.
“We have fun both on and off the court,” she said. “We cheer each other on, we motivate each other, feed off each other. We know what we’re capable of doing.”
Seton Hall travels to DePaul Friday to take on the conference-leading Blue Demons.