Good afternoon, or evening, as you prefer! It's a battle for New Jersey at historic Walsh Gymnasium on the campus of Seton Hall University, as the Pirates take on the Tigers of Princeton on this chill spring day.
The Princeton band will be in attendance today, as are a passel of Princeton fans and family. We're expecting Walsh to get loud. Student Activities has attempted to bribe students into attending with one of their favorite things: free pizza. So far it's having a minimal effect, but I'm hopeful.
The Princeton band has arrived, in their orange plaid jackets and black pants. Even the drums are plaid, except for the bits with tigers on. Some of the band members are even wearing tails, and I don't mean the excessively formal jacket kind of tails. I mean tiger tails, curling long and low from their backs. I still think Cal rocks the hats better.
The folks who know us also know that we're St. John's fans, so we're hearing a lot about Briana Brown's three from the corner against USC. Not that I ever get tired of hearing about Briana Brown's three from the corner against USC.
Princeton, we're going to make you tear down that "Play Like Champions" banner and eat it with salt and barbeque sauce.
At halftime, Seton Hall is up by two, 38-36, and it's been a great, back-and-forth game. Michelle Miller has 22 for Princeton; Tabatha Richardson-Smith has 13 for Seton Hall. The bands have been going at it, back and forth, Princeton testing the bounds of artificial noisemakers with their drumsticks at the edges of their drums. Place is loud. I love it. That's what college basketball is about: the fire of competition and the energy of the crowd.
What a game. What a finish. Heart and hustle and passion and Ka-Deidre Simmons having brass ones the size of Jupiter and Tara Inman having ice water in her veins and nerves of steel and Bra'Shey Ali deciding that ALL the rebounds were hers. Melissa Miller unable to miss and Princeton finding the open man. Scrambling and scrapping and scraping and clawing, everyone wanting the ball, everyone wanting the game, everyone wanting the season. This is why the WNIT exists; in a way, this is why basketball itself exists. It's not all for one shining moment- it's for the next moment, and the next, and if it shines that's because there's sweat on it and the lights are hitting it just right.
I was surprised Nicole Hung was playing so little. I remember her being a firestarter for them in the last couple of years, but she only played in the second half, and only briefly. Vanessa Smith came in at the ends of halves- I think she might be a three-point specialist, but I don't know about Princeton to judge. Taylor Williams made a nuisance of herself on defense, committing a lot of fouls (really, just ask Janee next time before you start grabbing her, she's friendly) and being annoying. Kristen Helmstetter was a big body in the middle, with nice touch and utter determination to claim things around her rim- not necessarily the opposing rim, mind you, but the offensive glass was hers.
Oh my God, Michelle Miller. Seriously. Oh my God. I don't know if I've ever seen an offensive performance like that. She couldn't miss. I've seen huge offensive performances by the greatest in the game, but I don't know if I've ever seen one quite so efficient. We couldn't stop her. We couldn't get close to her. She fired off shots and nailed them clean. I swear one of those threes was from the general vicinity of Atlantic City. They didn't ask her to do much else, but what she did was almost enough to win them the game. Annie Tarakchian was a big body on the inside- they list her as a guard, but with those broad shoulders, she's definitely more of a forward. She fouled out of the game late, and I think that was a turning point- she was helping make the space that Miller needed. Alex Wheatley very quietly took care of business on the inside, stretching a little every so often to the midrange. Pretty much any performance gets lost behind 34 points on highly efficient shooting, but Wheatley was excellent. Amanda Berntsen didn't play much and didn't make much of an impression. Blake Dietrick seemed to be the facilitator and the decider, but Seton Hall's defense forced her into bad passes.
In general, Princeton seemed to be a little sloppy, a little unfocused- throwing passes to players who were nowhere near the destination of the pass, throwing passes low, throwing up bad shots (though those might have been for the sake of rebounds). Not the kind of execution I've come to expect from Princeton. They moved well without the ball.
Tara Inman is a good on-ball defender. She needs to stay on her man, though, and keep her feet moving. She sank the free throws after subbing for Ka-Deidre Simmons, her only points of the game, cool as a cucumber and clean as a whistle. Sidney Cook's shot selection left something to be desired, right until the end of the game when she hit the three-point play. She rebounded hard, though. (But seriously, Sid, the one-foot fallaway doesn't work for Cappie Pondexter, it's sure not going to work for you.)
Bra'Shey Ali had no luck with the rim, but she was determined that ALL the rebounds were going to be hers. She was tough on the inside, taking care of business. Janee Johnson went after loose balls ferociously- her shot choices were a bit questionable, but you put Janee in the game because you want hustle, and if you take her out it's because she's got her head stuck somewhere it shouldn't be. Tabatha Richardson-Smith had her three-point mojo going today, and they were falling soft and sweet. She did a nice job on the boards, too, tough and determined. Alexis Brown had a lot of shots fall off the rim, but she was all over everything and carrying her team. She's got such a nice first step. Fun to watch. Ka-Deidre Simmons took over the game in the second half. She decided that Seton Hall wasn't going to lose that game, and she made sure that her team was in position to win when Sidney Cook hit that shot for the three-point play. She took hard hits into the stanchion and got back up, though that second time scared us whens he couldn't put weight on her leg initially. But she was our heart and soul tonight, with jumpers that were perfectly on line and her free throws going down.
The Pirates fed off the crowd, I think, and they fed the crowd. Alexis and Janee both got the crowd going, and those of us in the lower deck followed their lead and Breanna Jones's to raise the noise level. The official attendance has something like 620, but we were all a loud 620, even the Princeton fans.
There were stretches of the game where I agreed with the Princeton band's assessment of the officials having the visual acuity of a blind Cyclops, but I suspect it was for different reasons. We did have an interesting moment at one point where two different fouls were called on two different plays at the same time- a flagrant on Alex Wheatley off the ball for smacking Sidney Cook, and an on-ball foul on Seton Hall. The officials eventually determined that the flagrant superseded the common foul, and Sid proceeded to miss the free throws, because this is how every single damn one of my teams rolls.
They were not losing. Plain and simple. Seton Hall wasn't letting it end that night. Ka-Deidre Simmons would not permit it and she would not permit her teammates to allow it.
20 wins. 20 wins in a season for the first time in 19 years for Seton Hall. It's a magic number. Let's keep the magic alive.