On Jan. 3, three weeks after getting discharged from the hospital following a scary bout with COVID-19, Tony Bozzella still wasn’t feeling right as his Seton Hall women’s basketball team faced Providence.
“I was struggling in a lot of ways,” he said.
During a third-quarter timeout with the Pirates trailing, postgrad guard Andra Espinoza-Hunter wrapped an arm around the 55-year-old coach and reminded him, essentially, to pace himself.
“Coach, B, we need you out here the whole year,” Espinoza-Hunter said. “We got this. Don’t worry.”
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She then proceeded to exhort her teammates, who promptly went on a game-turning run. The Hall would win seven of their next eight contests, finish third in the Big East’s regular-season standings and climb onto the NCAA Tournament bubble. This weekend, in the Big East Tournament, they’ll make a case for inclusion in the field of 64.
It’s a remarkable story. Bozzella battled COVID for nearly a month, blood clots and all. He needed oxygen. His team dealt with three COVID pauses totaling 28 days. Yet, picked to finish sixth in the preseason coaches’ poll, the Pirates went 12-5 (14-6 overall) put three players on first team All-Big East (Espinoza-Hunter, Lauren Park-Lane and Desiree Elmore) and could make the NCAAs for the first time since 2016.
Somehow, Bozzella was not voted Big East Coach of the Year. That went to UConn’s Geno Auriemma for the 100th time.
“I give our kids a lot of credit,” Bozzella said. “Each time we came back from a pause they dedicated themselves and never used it as an excuse. I’m proud of them for that.”
He also has strong assistants in Lauren DeFalco, who ran the team in his absence, Marissa Flagg and Jose Rebimbas. Perhaps most important, the pieces fit. Espinoza-Hunter transferred into the program in late November from Mississippi State and blended seamlessly. It doesn’t always happen that way.
“I’ve done this for 30 years and I’ve never had a player come into that situation and make an impact on and off the court like she did,” Bozzella said.
The Pirates’ Big East quarterfinal tips Saturday, 9 p.m. against either Creighton or Georgetown at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. It’s a must-win. If they get second-seeded Marquette in Sunday’s semifinals (a team they beat in January), it will be a statement opportunity.
“We are one of the best 64 teams in the country,” Bozzella said. “We march out three all-conference players. We play defense, we score. Us and Tennessee are the only teams that led UConn at the half.”
Perhaps the great irony of this challenging campaign is that COVID wasn’t merely a curve ball for Bozzella.
“It changed me, and it’s made me a better coach,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed it a lot more.”
He’s tired, like everyone else at the end of a long season, but in a way it’s the most fun he’s had on the job.
“In December, when a doctor walked into your hospital room and said, ‘I think you’ll be OK,’” Bozzella recalled, emphasizing the word think, “it changed my perspective on life.”
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at email@example.com.