For the fifth consecutive season, the St. John’s University women’s basketball team made the NCAA Tournament, earning the right to compete for a championship in postseason play.
For the second straight year, they didn’t stick around at the big dance very long.
With a trip to their second Sweet 16 in the last three years on the line, the Red Storm drew the difficult task of squaring off with the top-seeded Tennessee Volunteers on their home court in the Round of 32 on Monday. There would be no shocking upset, as the Johnnies fell to the Lady Vols 67-51, ending the Red Storm’s season.
St. John’s didn’t go down without a fight, however. The Red Storm found themselves down 39-35 at halftime, well within striking distance of their favored opponent. Star guard Aliyyah Handford, who set a school record for points as a sophomore this year, nailed two free throws with 17 minutes left in the contest to tie the game at 39, but Tennessee went on an 18-4 run midway through the second half to tip the scales in its favor permanently.
The Red Storm ended the 2013-14 season, Joe Tartamella’s second as head coach, with a 23-11 record, the team’s best since 2011, when St. John’s, led by former coach and current University of Michigan head woman Kim Barnes Arico, last made the Sweet 16.
The 23 wins in 2013 is a five-victory improvement over last year, when St. John’s lost in double overtime to Dayton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Carnesecca Arena, the Red Storm’s home court.
“There’s a reason [the Volunteers] are a number one seed, but I’m so proud of these kids who fought until the end to get to this point,” Tartamella said after the game. “From where we started to where we are now, I couldn’t be prouder.”
Handford scored 23 of the Red Storm’s 51 points, her 11th game of more than 20 points this season, while adding four rebounds. No other St. John’s player scored in double digits. The All-Big East First Team selectee finished the year with 567 total points and she should be an even more dynamic player when next season begins in the fall.
“She’s one of the few players I’ve ever seen that looks like she is guarded and then a second later she is open,” Tartamella said. “Aliyyah has the chance to become one of, if not the most talented player we have ever had in the program.”
The Red Storm did manage to get Tartamella his first NCAA tournament win this year before falling to Tennessee.
While Handford’s 27 points certainly helped lead St. John’s past the University of Southern California in the first round on Saturday, it was senior captain Brianna Brown who buried a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Johnnies a 71-68 victory, their last one of the season.
It was Brown’s only made basket of the game, but it was arguably the biggest shot of her successful career at St. John’s.
“Honestly, when I shot it I wasn’t really thinking anything,” Brown said. “It happened to be the big one.”
Red Storm fans can expect another solid season in 2014-15, as the Johnnies will only lose three players, Brown, Keylantra Langley and Eugeneia McPherson, to graduation this year.
Handford paired with freshman Aaliyah Lewis and junior Amber Thompson should make for a solid core of talent Tartamella can build around, so don’t be surprised to see the Johnnies back in the big dance one year from now. The only question is how far can they advance.