St. John’s women’s run ends in NCAA Tournament loss to Auburn

A memorable run by St. John's ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a 68-57 loss to Auburn (Photo: St. John's Athletic Communications)

A memorable run by St. John’s ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a 68-57 loss to Auburn (Photo: St. John’s Athletic Communications)

Dylan Hornik, Staff Writer

One of the most fruitful seasons in St. John’s women’s basketball history came to an emotional end on Friday. Unable to overcome a massive deficit, the Red Storm fell to Auburn, 68-57, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The loss concludes an inspiring season that saw the team earn their first BIG EAST championship in 28 years, nearly 25 wins, and a slew of individual praise as well.

“Obviously we didn’t end how we wanted to, but everyone in our locker room has given their all, all season,” senior Danaejah Grant said. The Red Storm finish the season with a 23-10 record, Grant led the conference in scoring, and the team took not only the BIG EAST, but the country on notice all season.

Auburn got out to a hot start, using a formula that had worked well for St. John’s all season long. They opened up the floodgates early by forcing turnovers and driving the ball inside. They led 19-6 after the first quarter thanks to eight points in the paint. St. John’s just couldn’t build any momentum, committing turnover after turnover and feeling the heat put on by the Tiger defense.

The deficit got to its largest point, 19, less than halfway through the second quarter, but St. John’s battled back and began to turn it around as the half came to a close. They got on a roll offensively by taking care of the basketball, committing only four turnovers in the quarter, a vast improvement from the eight surrendered in the first. Danaejah Grant, playing in what would be her final collegiate game, sparked the run with back-to-back three-pointers to begin to chip away at Auburn’s lead. Akina Wellere got into the action with two threes of her own, but Auburn held an eight-point lead at the half.

St. John’s nearly came all the way back in the third quarter, getting to within 37-34 halfway through the period. They began to play their usual brand of basketball, drawing contact inside and getting to the line to whittle away at the deficit. They hit five free throws, a big part of their comeback. Despite their efforts, the Red Storm couldn’t completely close the gap. They found themselves down by seven at the end of the third, staring down the most decisive 10 minutes of basketball of their season.

The fourth quarter did not prove to be kind to the Red Storm, like it has been all season. They got to within five at the beginning thanks to Aliyyah Handford’s jumper, but it wouldn’t get any closer than that. Auburn did a good job of closing the game out, stressing offense as the game closed out. The Tigers hit five free throws in the final minute to keep their season alive.

Grant did all she could to bring her team to victory, dropping 25 points in her final game as a Johnnie. Handford had 10 in her final game as well, but the team committed 25 turnovers, a key to Auburn’s victory.

Head Coach Joe Tartamella had time to reflect on the seniors’ impact on the program. “These two young ladies on my left [Handford and Grant], usually I’m not an emotional guy in the locker room, but to have these two young ladies done is tough for me,” said Tartamella in the postgame press conference. “I’ll miss them.”

While the season didn’t end the way the team dreamed it could have, the future is bright for the Red Storm. They have a full rotation of young players that have gained valuable experience for next year. The two graduating seniors, Handford and Grant, have left an indelible mark on this program; they are the telltale signs of a team approaching national prominence yet again.