Prior to St. John’s eventual loss at No. 9 Rutgers on Feb. 1, two reporters from the Rutgers student newspaper sat beside me on press row, going over the important facts about the Red Storm.
The team has only lost three games: Duke, Marquette and UConn, one said. They talked about Angela Clark and Kia Wright, asked if Lisa Claxton was “Speedy’s sister” and noted that the team, at the time, was No. 25 in the country. They seemed impressed.
But then St. John’s put on a first-half performance not very indicative of its ranking. The women’s basketball team’s deficit grew to as large as 33-6 on an ugly 1-of-14 shooting.
Heads hung on the bench and on the court. Frustration was noticeable.
The Rutgers’ reporters began spurting stats about St. John’s scoring drought (six and then seven minutes).
Was the pressure of being in the top-25 causing some anxiety?
Probably. (Most of the team’s missed shots were long or off the back of the rim.)
Was it overwhelmed by Rutgers’ talent and intensity early on?
Was St. John’s over matched?
Not a chance.
The ladies rallied with a 22-2 spurt sparked by Wright tipping in her own miss between two taller Rutgers defenders. Extra-effort plays characterized the comeback. While it fell short, St. John’s came as close as two points on four occasions, the run was indicative of what makes this team special, one deserving of the No. 23 ranking and a NCAA tournament bid.
The team never threw in the towel, like many Mike Tyson opponents should have done in the late ’80s, and while Wright may have started the run, six different players scored during it.
“The players that I first had when I inherited the program didn’t believe they could win,” said coach Kim Barnes Arico after beating Villanova at the Garden. “These kids on any night believe they can win.”
On most nights they have.
This team is not reliant on one or two players to do everything.
Sure Clark and Wright are special, but like the Kobe and Shaq Lakers (minus the feud) they would be less successful without their supporting cast.
Danielle Chambers (averaging 9.1 points and 9.0 rebounds) is having her best season at St. John’s. Tara Walker has been more than solid and freshman Monique McClean is the team’s talented – but inconsistent – surprise.
Then there is Greeba Barlow.
The senior guard has been the team’s third consistent scorer. She can put up points in bunches and cannot be left open behind the three-point line. She scored a team-high 20 points in the Red Storm’s bounce-back win over South Florida on Sunday.
“We couldn’t dwell on Rutgers,” Barlow said.
Nor should they.
That first half was a total aberration. This team is one that is 9-0 at home and fighting for a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament.
The challenge for St. John’s now is to keep themselves afloat in the national rankings and in the upper echelon of the conference – two places it is unfamiliar with. All signs point to the team doing just that – because there are two things St. John’s will not relinquish easily.
“First time in 22 years they’re in the top 25,” Rutgers guard Cappie Pondexter said. “Why not fight?”
The Red Storm has and will.