Big crowd propels SJU

Caitlin Rimgaila was in an old, but familiar situation Friday night against Connecticut.

The sophomore, a middle hitter entering St. John’s, but playing the right side this season, was moved back to her original position because of a foot injury that limited Hui Ping Huang.

“The other team wasn’t ready for me to play in the middle,” Rimgaila said.

But she was ready.

Rimgaila tallied a career- and team-high 15 kills in the St. John’s volleyball team’s 3-0 (30-23, 30-23, 30-25) win over UConn in front of a record crowd of 287 at Carnesecca Arena.

“I’ve been trying for that the whole season,” Rimgaila said.

Last year the Red Storm had a tendency to let games and matches slip away after getting ahead, losing six conference matches in the maximum five games.

Rimgaila and her teammates made sure that didn’t happen here.

In the third and final game, with St. John’s ahead 25-20 and the Huskies trying to inch closer, the 6-foot-2 Rimgaila combined with setter Cassie Brooks (42 assists) for two consecutive blocks, giving St. John’s a 27-20 lead.

Connecticut (10-9, 2-4) would pull as close as 29-25, but Wang ended the match with a cross-court kill.

“I believe the last five points are really important,” said St. John’s head coach Joanne Persico-Smith, who called a timeout to refocus her team near the end of the third game. “If we can play that way and finish teams off it means we really are hungry.

They were.

In the second game, which saw nine ties, the Red Storm (17-6, 3-3) used an 11-3 run to grab a 27-20 advantage. The surge was fueled by early kills from Anicia Wood including one that left UConn’s Jenna Schweitzer with a bloody nose, and ended with kills from Shameka Mitchell (13) and Rimgaila.

“We usually come out very strong in our first game and kind of let back down in our second game,” Mitchell said. “It’s something we have been working on, trying to hold our composure all the way through and not look like a roller coaster ride.”

UConn was led by freshman Sarah Singer’s 13 kills and senior Jenny Neelands’ 20 assists

The win, St. John’s 15th 3-0 victory this season, but only their third win all-time against the Huskies, may have even bigger implications down the road. The Red Storm moved one game ahead of Connecticut in the Big East standings and do not feel it is too early to notice this match’s importance towards making the eight-team conference tournament.

“You have to think about it every game,” Rimgaila said. “You [cannot] let one game slip. It even comes down to the points in games for ties. So you want to beat every team thinking that you are going to get to the tournament.”

St. John’s will continue that quest by finishing a stretch of five home games this weekend against conference opponents Marquette and Syracuse, before four road contests.

“They know the consequence of not winning home matches because we know how hard it is on the road,” Persico-Smith said. “We need to take care of our backyard at home.”