Friday, November 4, 2011

New York's Other Team: St. John's Women's Basketball

Ten years ago, St. John's women's basketball barely had a pulse; but Lady Johnnies are now relevant with six postseason appearances in last seven seasons under coach Kim Barnes Arico. (Photo courtesy of RedStormSports.com)

Depending on who you speak to, you'll get a varying answer as to who truly is "New York's college team." To those in upstate New York, the choice is Jim Boeheim's Syracuse Orange. Closer to New York City, the consensus leans toward St. John's University. Steve Lavin may have led the Red Storm to their first NCAA Tournament since 2002 with last year's magical run started by ten seniors on a mission to prove that they belonged among the elite; but over the last decade, it has been the lesser regarded basketball program in Queens that has been the most successful, with six postseason appearances in the last seven seasons and three trips to the second round of the NCAA Tournament under a coach that could conceivably take over the reins of a low or mid-major Division I men's basketball program and lead it to the same level of greatness.

Now entering her tenth year at the helm of the Lady Johnnies, Kim Barnes Arico leads a nationally ranked team into action once again despite losing two key pieces from last year's team in seniors Sky Lindsay and Coco Hart. "We've had some significant losses," said Barnes Arico this morning when she met the media for the first time at St. John's annual team media day. "It will be interesting to see how we adjust."

In addition to Lindsay and Hart graduating, the Red Storm were dealt yet another blow several weeks ago when it was announced that star forward Da'Shena Stevens, who enters her senior season as a potential All-American, would be out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury. Stevens is recovering; but will be out for most, if not all of, St. John's nonconference schedule. In her absence, Barnes Arico will count on two transfers that are now eligible to play for the Johnnies after sitting out last year. Mary Nwachukwu, who comes to St. John's from Boston College, will be a prime candidate to fill minutes while Stevens is out; and has been "growing as a player" according to Stevens. In addition, Delaware transfer Tesia Harris, the older sister of Milwaukee Bucks forward Tobias and NC State freshman Tyler, is a shooter that can play both guard and forward when necessary. The Red Storm can also employ 6-3 junior center Jennifer Blanding to be a commanding post presence against bigger lineups. Blanding also looks to be in the best shape of her career, as she has lost some weight and put on additional muscle. Stevens may be out, but the second star player for St. John's is healthy and ready to continue making an impact after being among the team's leading scorers in each of her first two seasons. Junior guard Shenneika Smith returns to anchor the backcourt, and is confident that the team will return to their winning ways by the end of the season.

With her star player out for the first half of the season, Barnes Arico intimated that the Red Storm could use four-guard sets to combat size advantages that favor their opponents, and leading the charge in the backcourt alongside Smith will be juniors Nadirah McKenith and Eugeneia McPherson, the last remaining members of Barnes Arico's notorious "Mac Attack," a group that also included forward Joy McCorvey and guard Monique McLean and Kelly McManmon once upon a time. McPherson, a Long Island product that has been the sixth man for St. John's in each of her first two seasons, now becomes a full-time starter; and Barnes Arico insists she will have a breakout year after doing a "tremendous job" in practice leading up to the season opener. McKenith, a combo guard like her backcourt partner McPherson, is back as well after battling injuries through her sophomore campaign last year. Since shooter Amanda Burakoski transferred in the offseason, the three-point threat St. John's has had with Burakoski and Kelly McManmon in years past is gone; but Barnes Arico believes McKenith can fill the void. "Nadirah is probably our best outside shooter,"said the coach, but "you wouldn't know that because she never takes them." Sophomores Briana Brown and Keylantra Langley have made great strides as well, and each could see considerable minutes when the Lady Johnnies do indeed play four guards. "Briana and Tesia Harris will need to knock shots down for us," said Barnes Arico. "They'll be the ones we run things for."

The Red Storm open their season a week from tomorrow at Carnesecca Arena against St. Bonaventure; but Barnes Arico's season starts earlier than that, as the coach will be running in Sunday's New York City Marathon. Although this is her first marathon, the coach has been training throughout the summer; and will have both her team and family on the course to support her. After the St. Bonaventure game, the Lady Johnnies host La Salle on November 16th before making the trip to Long Island to face Hofstra at the Mack Center in Hempstead two days later, with Wagner College coming over the Verrazano Bridge to face the Red Storm in Queens two days before Thanksgiving.

St. John's heads out to the Bahamas immediately following the holiday for a tournament in which they will match up with Iowa before facing either Temple or reigning national champion Texas A&M in the championship game. Barnes Arico will then prepare her team for nonconference home games against Howard and Hartford before their Big East opener in Chicago on December 7th against DePaul. Top-ranked Baylor will face St. John's four days later in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden in a Sunday morning matchup that will feature the Lady Johnnies trying to stop Baylor superstar Brittney Griner, regarded by many to be the best player in the nation.

The Red Storm return to their home arena to host the fourth annual Chartwells Holiday Classic, first taking on Prairie View A&M before facing either Louisiana Tech or Memphis in the championship on December 18th. A road trip to Harvard serves as the last contest St. John's plays before Christmas, and Barnes Arico's team will get their final nonconference test at home against Boston University on New Year's Eve before opening 2012 on January 4th against Providence at Carnesecca Arena.

A home game with Louisville precedes a January 12th trip to the Carrier Dome to take on rising powerhouse Syracuse, with the Johnnies' second trip to Madison Square Garden coming three days later against Marquette in the second half of a doubleheader featuring the men's team in action against Georgetown. The Red Storm will play the first half of a home-and-home series against Rutgers and legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer on January 17th at Carnesecca before hitting the road to face Cincinnati four days later.

January 28th will be a big day for St. John's basketball. Not only do the boys meet Duke inside Cameron Indoor Stadium looking to end Duke's 11-year nonconference home winning streak, but the women entertain Notre Dame at Carnesecca Arena in what will undoubtedly be the biggest home game of the season for them. The Fighting Irish enter the season as the class of the Big East; but have been upset by St. John's in both of their last two trips to Queens, each with a Top 10 ranking to their credit before contesting the opening tip.

Road games against Pittsburgh and Seton Hall take the Red Storm through January and into February, with St. John's hosting USF on February 8th before making the trip down Interstate 95 four days later to wrap up a home-and-home series with Rutgers at the RAC in Piscataway, with another game away from home against Geno Auriemma and UConn at Gampel Pavilion. The Lady Johnnies play their final two home games against West Virginia and Villanova before traveling to Georgetown to conclude the regular season on February 27th.

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