Joe Tartamella and St. John’s have begun to turn heads with 9-0 start, and Red Storm’s winning mentality with three new transfers is a major reason why. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John’s University Athletics)
NEW YORK — At this time several months ago, Joe Tartamella appeared to be at a crossroads at the helm after a decade as head women’s basketball coach at St. John’s.
Having just completed a fourth consecutive season without a postseason appearance after not missing a beat during his first six as Kim Barnes Arico’s successor, Tartamella entered the summer of 2022 on the proverbial hot seat in the eyes of some fans. Scores of Red Storm supporters wondered how the 43-year-old would manage this coming season in a Big East dominated by UConn, DePaul and Creighton, with Marquette, Seton Hall and Villanova waiting in the wings, and without a star player no less after Leilani Correa became the latest budding star to use Carnesecca Arena as a springboard to greater surroundings, becoming the third key player in as many years to transfer out of the program when she signed with the University of Florida.
What has followed is a renaissance that has quietly picked up steam after a seismic upset of a Creighton team ranked 13th in the nation, but remains largely overlooked outside of a niche audience. Following Thursday's 77-51 takedown of Iona, St. John’s is now 9-0, the program’s best start since the 2014-15 season that it began with 10 straight victories, is receiving votes in the Top 25 and could very well be both undefeated and ranked when it visits Seton Hall in January 4, and possibly when it hosts UConn a week later at UBS Arena. The addition of three graduate transfers on an already senior-laden roster has mitigated the departure of Correa, and Tartamella — whose job security was rumored to become a hot topic if another sub-.500 record arose — looks like the frontrunner for Coach of the Year honors in a campaign that may very well go down as the best of his career to this point.
So what exactly changed on the heels of a disappointing 12-19 finish last year?
“Our mentality,” Danielle Patterson, one of five holdovers in the Red Storm rotation, said of the difference in performance. “It’s changed drastically from last year. Losing is just unacceptable to us, it’s just something that we’re just not having this year as a team. We hold ourselves to a really high standard every day in practice, and when it comes to the games, it shows.”
“What Dani said is very true,” Tartamella echoed. “I think, mentality-wise, consistency-wise, just the competitive nature that they’ve bred amongst each other is drastic. It is a mentality and how we want to compete, but they do that every day in practice. These kids have worked really hard since the summer, and obviously we have a long way to go as we get through the year, but the one thing that they do is they play hard. And that’s what we’ve been since I’ve been here, even before I became the head coach. It’s exciting to watch in how they go about their business.”
Joining Patterson, Kadaja Bailey, Danielle Cosgrove, Unique Drake and Rayven Peeples in the fold this year are four transfers in total, three of whom are playing significant roles for St. John’s in an eight-player rotation. Mimi Reid arrived from Ole Miss to shore up the backcourt, and her bulldog mentality has meshed well with former Pitt guard Jayla Everett, who has showcased a game predicated on equal parts passing and shooting to give the Red Storm a combo guard on the wing alongside Bailey. Finally, Jillian Archer — whose time at Georgetown gives her a more mature and introspective look at her new program now that she is inside its walls — has quickly made a difference both with the ball in her hands and on the glass, where she has become a critical second rebounding presence, which was a trademark of the past Johnnies teams’ success.
“I was super familiar with it being at Georgetown,” Archer said of St. John’s system and the mutual fit between both sides. “I think that was a huge part of me deciding to come here. I think that playing aggressive, just playing hard every single night, as well as the fast pace, was definitely something that I was interested in.”
“I think it’s really awesome. We have a lot of leaders on this team, everybody’s able to bring their own experience. Obviously I have some experience playing in the Big East already, so really just being able to share that as well as staying open to what other people have to say.”
Life in the portal has been an experience in which St. John’s has taken the good with the bad. The losses of Tiana England, Qadashah Hoppie and Correa over the last three seasons might be a death knell to programs whose resources may not allow for such players to be adequately replaced, but for Tartamella and his staff, the trio of newcomers that were ushered into Queens have not only turned the page, but seem to have affected the bottom line for the better by creating a lifestyle and commitment that pervades the hardwood and whose foundation is laid down and enhanced on a daily basis.
“It’s part of what we tried to find,” said Tartamella. “Certainly, we have a lot of new faces, so there’s a big difference in who we’ve brought in, but also who is here and also how they’ve connected. We were trying to find the right personalities, the right mentality, but competitors and kids who love to play. When you look at the team we have and the players that have been here, I’ll probably never have another Kadaja Bailey who plays five years, it’s just the way of the world. But even Rayven and Unique, and Patterson and Cosgrove, will be critical players as we move forward, regardless of the up-and-down of games at times, but so will the others.”
“Mimi and Jayla both played at a high level, and Jillian, we were very familiar with and how she could play. But their mentality is because of who they are as a group, not just as one individual. They’ve stayed true to that, it’s enjoyable to coach, and it’s exciting. We’ll obviously continue to build, but just to come in as a coach and knowing in practice that you’re going to get the same consistency for the most part every day in how they compete is exciting as a coach, so I think what Dani said is probably on point.”
The building blocks on this year’s team have commingled to provide an iteration of Red Storm basketball that is once again aesthetically pleasing, even if Tartamella admits it is far from a finished product, and has offered more upside and promise than at any point in the past several years.
“We wanted to get on the glass, and that’s been a fun thing to watch this year,” he said after Thursday’s plus-18 showing on the boards against Iona. “You look at the differential, and I haven’t seen that differential in probably about two years, so we’ll enjoy that and continue to kind of build on that. It’s a way to get more points. Jill’s done a good job, but Ray has become a better rebounder, Patterson has had her moments, but our guards — Kadaja and Jayla, and even Mimi gets in there at times — it’s certainly another dimension to our team that allows us to manufacture points.”
And at 9-0, with a pair of non-conference games still to go before Big East play resumes one week from Sunday, the synergy and dynamic between players may not have openly impressed Tartamella, but another intangible has in its place.
“I guess I would say I’m extremely pleased with our toughness level in the games that we’ve played,” he assessed. “The game we played (Thursday) and the games prior to that have been all different types of styles, but also games where we’ve had to grind it out and had to come back, down at half, up at half, down in the fourth. We’ve had to do a lot of different things even though it may not seem that way, so I think those things have really helped us. Watching them in the summer, we felt like we had a chance. But we still have a long way to go. We haven’t done anything, and we know that. The next game’s the most important one. That’s what I keep telling them.”