Queens, NY – St. John’s suffered a narrow loss at home against Connecticut on Sunday afternoon. The Red Storm (10-10, 4-4) exchanged blows with the Huskies (20-1, 7-1) – who were without Stephanie Dolson due to an illness – until the No. 3 ranked team in the country squeezed by in the final minutes of the game.
The Johnnies were hot from behind the arch early in the first half, as Nadirah McKennith and Briana Brown sank two three’s within the first four minutes to deliver a message to the Huskies that they were not going to be pushed around.
Connecticut had their biggest lead of the half with five minutes to go as Morgan Tuck powered to the basket following a media timeout, giving the Huskies a 32-24 advantage.
The Johnnies mustered up the strength to not let UCONN run away as Aliyyah Handford put up 6 points in the final minutes of the half to even the game at 35-35. The freshman got into the groove early in the game and served as a piece to keeping the team alive and riled up.
“I just kept attacking them,” Handford said. “They couldn’t beat me up to the drive, so once I kept attacking them I saw that they couldn’t guard me.”
St. John’s shot 54% in the first half, compared to the Huskies’ 43%, and out-rebounded the Huskies 16-14, who entered the game with the best rebound margin and best FG percentage in the Big East.
“This just gives them another look at what they’re capable of,” St. John’s head coach Tartamella said.
“‘We’re not going away.’ That’s what I told them at halftime. ‘You’re going to let them know that and let every team in the league know that.’”
The Red Storm began the second half just as aggressively as they did in the first. Smith and Handford put up 9 points in the first four minutes of play to give their team a 6 point advantage, which the Huskies quickly chipped away.
Handford, who has scored at least 10 points in her past four games, put up 17 points in 34 minutes of play in her first game against UCONN and elevated her teammates’ play.
“I don’t know where we’d be without Aliyyah,” Tartamella said. “She’s stepped up in the absence of Eugenia. She’s a big piece and will continue to be a big piece for our program in the next couple of years.”
UCONN’s Kelly Faris sank a 3 pointer to give the Huskies a 55-52 lead with under 7 minutes to go, and the Johnnies wouldn’t get the lead back.
St. John’s continued to hang in the game but untimely fouls proved costly for embattled and passion-driven team.
The Johnnies were down by 5 with less than a minute remaining, but McKennith missed her short ranged jumper and UCONN got the defensive rebound, which forced the Johnnies to foul as UCONN held on to win 71-65.
Following the loss, the players kept their heads held high as they jogged off the court to the applause of the crowd. They did not seem fazed at all by nearly knocking off one of the best programs in recent history.
“I feel like this right here is what we needed,” senior Shenneika Smith contemplated. “This might be the corner we turn right here.”
St. John’s will next play on Feb. 9 when they host Georgetown.