Monday, February 13, 2012

The Queen Of Queens

Once charged with resurrecting women's basketball at St. John's, Kim Barnes Arico now stands atop program's all-time wins list. (Photo courtesy of Newsday)

For a long time, it seemed as though the only way you were relevant in women's college basketball is if you were either the University of Connecticut or Tennessee. Eventually, that group expanded to include the likes of Stanford, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Baylor among others. However, the true success stories are those who do not have the glittering resumes of a Geno Auriemma or a Pat Summitt. One of these diamonds in the rough is as close as St. John's University in Queens, who now has a new winningest coach in the history of Red Storm women's basketball after sweeping Rutgers for the first time ever last night.

After the Red Storm capped off their 61-52 victory at the RAC in Piscataway for their fourth straight win against the Scarlet Knights, head coach Kim Barnes Arico picked up her 169th victory since taking over the reins of a program no one knew about outside of the St. John's campus back in 2002. For the 41-year-old Barnes Arico; a mother of three who is probably one of the most unassuming people in her profession, the victory was a milestone that made her the winningest coach in program history.

St. John's had won a grand total of eleven games in the two years before Barnes Arico arrived, and won eight her first year and ten in her second. The following year, St. John's made a surprising WNIT appearance that set the bar for a 2005-06 season in which the Red Storm won 22 games and were a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament that year, defeating Cal in the first round and nearly upsetting eventual national champion Maryland in a season that my former WSJU colleague Reginald Bazile still holds in high regard. Following a round of 32 appearance proved to be difficult, however, as injuries held the Red Storm to an 8-20 record the following season.

During the 2007-08 season that served as my first in the broadcasting industry, St. John's had done very well in year six under Barnes Arico, even holding their own at home against Baylor in a game that was much closer than the 81-58 final margin let on. Granted, the Red Storm had the unenviable task of guarding Angela Tisdale, better known as the face of Baylor before Brittney Griner came along. Long story short; Reggie had asked me to work the Red Storm's game against USF with him on January 8th of that year, and it was during that night on play-by-play that I finally got to see what made this program and this coach so good, the things that made them a better and more successful (at the time, and maybe still) than their masculine counterparts.

Since the 2006-07 season in which both of Barnes Arico's star players were injured, St. John's has reached the postseason every other year after that, recording two WNIT trips and back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. The Red Storm have advanced to the round of 32 in each of the last two seasons, and could do it again after this Rutgers win puts them on the fast track to a third consecutive trip to the "Big Dance."

UConn and Tennessee have always had a Who's Who of WNBA talent that was ready to play at a high level from the moment they walked through the doors. St. John's hasn't always had that same fortune; but over her decade of quiet dominance, Barnes Arico has managed to turn out more than just a few exceptional players. The casual fan does not know Angela Clark, Kia Wright, Tiina Sten, Monique McLean, Sky Lindsay, Kelly McManmon, Da'Shena Stevens, Shenneika Smith, Nadirah McKenith or Eugeneia McPherson, but the true fan who appreciates how far this program has come; or even media guys like myself and Reginald Bazile who were around when this program was still nothing, know where the keys to success lie in Queens, and could even recall role players like Kristin Moore, Recee Mitchell and Victoria Hodges, who never got the chance to prove how good they really were for various circumstances.

Ten years later, St. John's is now a force to be reckoned with in women's basketball; and for all the adulation Steve Lavin gets for resurrecting a program that had not been to the NCAA Tournament in nine years, the same level of attention should be paid to a coach who has fought from the bottom and built her program from the ground up to become the winningest coach in Red Storm history. When you get the chance to see Kim Barnes Arico and her team up close and personal, you have every right to just look back and marvel at what St. John's is all about. The program and coach have finally earned it after struggling for far too long.

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