As we wait for the start of the women’s basketball season, the Red Storm were voted to finish second in conference play by the coaches, only behind defending Big-East Champion DePaul. Head coach Joe Tartamella starts his fourth season at the helm of the program and has added new members to his staff. The new additions to the coaching staff are Tashina Pointer (former Rutgers standout player) and Da’Shena Stevens (one of St. John’s best players in program history).
St. John’s finished (21-10 overall) ( 11-7 Big East Play) last season and just came a bit short on reaching its sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament. They advanced to the third round of the WNIT before falling to Big East rival Villanova.
The Red Storm have four out of five starters returning, including the talented Aliyyah Handford, who was named the 2015-16 Preseason Big East Player of the Year. The senior guard is also motivated to help her team excel and grow throughout the season with the potential of capturing the program’s first Big East Tournament title since 1988.
“The award is obviously an honor; however, our team doesn’t worry about rankings and things of that nature,” Handford said. “What’s important to our team is to work on our game and work hard in practice, focusing every single practice and every single game. What we need to do is take things one day at a time and focus on that and, if we do, then we will get the result we are looking for which is to win the Big East”
Known for her athleticism and scoring ability, Handford led the conference in points per game (19.3), while also ranking among the top 10 in rebounding with 6.5 boards per game. Coming off the second-highest single-season point total in program history (655), the N.J. native leads the Big-East among active Conference players in career tallying 1,514 points and 188 steals. Handford and senior guard Danaejah Grant proved to be one of the best one-two-punches in the nation last season as they combined to average 36.4 points per game.
With the additions of freshman outside shooter Jordan Agustus and freshman guard/forward Akina Wellere, St. John’s has been working heavily on the STJ-50 drills which requires them to take 50 shots from all angles of the perimeter and from mid-range.
Agustus, a 6’1 forward from from St Mary’s, was ranked as the No. 15th wing player in the class of 2015 according to ESPN Hoopgurlz. Her strengths include quickness and craftiness, allowing her to contribute in all areas of the game and has the ability to break defenders down.
Wellere is a 5’11 guard from Chicago, I.L. who can guard multiple positions and can stretch the floor. At Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, Wellere was named All-City and Second Team All-State as a senior and was ranked 17th nationally at her position by ESPN Hoopgurlz. According to Wellere, her strongest part of her game is her lights out ability to shoot.
As the season quickly approaches, the Red Storm have a total of 11 players on the roster and have been working hard all-offseason to prepare for Nov. 13th.
Head coach Joe Tartamella said, “This time of year, you have some good days and some bad ones as you start practice, but I will tell you that I’ve really enjoyed the consistency that we’ve shown every single day. We’ve shown a lot of growth, not only as individual players, but as a team. Every day they’ve come in and they’ve worked extremely hard, as we prepare to get ready for the tough non-conference schedule we’ll play that’ll get us ready for our Big East opponents…. I’m really looking forward to watching this team progress throughout the year.”
Junior forward Jade Walker was third on the team in scoring, averaging 9.0 points and 4.7 rebounds. Best known for her solid mid-range jumper, the N.J. native is optimistic about the season.
Although St. John’s all-time leading rebounder Amber Thompson’s absence is noticed Walker feels strong about stepping up and taking on the responsibility and leadership of this role.
“I definitely think I need to get up on the boards more, Walker said. “Amber Thompson was a great addition to our team last year and a big rebounder for us so we’re definitely going to have to fill that void and I’m going to definitely have to put in more work and get on the boards a little bit more and help our team out.”
“I have been influenced by a lot of leaders since I’ve been at St. John’s, so basically just take in what they have given to me and help the freshman out since they’ve been coming in. I’m trying to teach them to always work hard and never take a play off because that was what coached me and basic things like time-management, all types of things since I’ve been in college,” Walker said.
As for the Red Storm last season, they were ranked last in three-point field-goals made (1.83 average per game) and free-throw pct. at 63.5%.
“We’re working on it, Tartamella said. “We know we can improve that. We work on it everyday in practice, putting them in situations where we can improve. Numbers don’t lie. The work that they put in will be seen and I think that we’ll be proud and have better numbers there.”
With practices getting in to full-swing and the season beginning, starting point guard Aaliyah Lewis says she’s feeling confident about her jumper and is ecstatic to start the season.
“One thing that I have been improving on is knocking the jump-shot down, Lewis said. “When I knock it down, the sky’s the limit for me. Everybody knows that I’m a pass first type of player, I want to get my teammates involved, everybody knows that. When I knock the jump-shot down, that’s going to create better offense for my teammates. People are going to come right up to me, I go right by them and that opens up the inside for my post players.”
“I’m just waiting for preseason to be over and to start playing,” Lewis said. “This is going to be a great year for us. We have 11 kids that all want to be here and want to learn and we all have one goal and that’s to win the Big East.”