SJU women lock up spot in Big East Tournament

By Joseph Manniello

There wasn’t a sea of red floating among the thousands of seats at Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon as the St. John’s women’s basketball team played host to Seton Hall in its inaugural game at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

After 6,824 watched the men’s team fall to Providence by 25 points in the double-header’s opener, only 1,000 or so stayed to witness the Red Storm win its 10th game of the season, a 61-52 victory over the Pirates.

Those who did stay experienced the first time two women’s programs squared off at the Garden since Tennessee, led by former Christ the King star Chamique Holdsclaw, beat Rutgers, 58-51, on Jan. 2, 2001.

The small crowd did not seem to bother St. John’s one bit. Playing its most intense basketball of the season, the Storm catapulted itself into the Big East Tournament, a place it has not been since the 2000-2001 season.

“For us to have that opportunity (playing at the Garden), we didn’t care if it was just in front of our friends and our family or if it was in front of thousands of people,” said St. John’s coach Kim Barnes Arico, whose team avenged a 63-52 loss at Seton Hall on Jan. 28. “We were excited about the opportunity to play in the Garden and we were also excited about the opportunity to get to the Big East tournament.

“We really stepped up and did a nice job tonight. I am proud of the effort. We just really played our hearts out tonight.”

The day belonged to the Red Storm women. It was apparent from the start, as center Kati Kurtosi (10 points) knocked down two three-pointers in the game’s first five minutes, lifting St. John’s (10-16, 4-11 Big East) to a quick 14-4 lead.

“Kati is actually one of our best shooters,” Barnes Arico said. “She really, truly is one of our best shooters, but she is also 6-foot-4 so she plays inside a lot. That was a spark.”

You name it, the SJU players did it. They hustled and rebounded. They found a way to corral every loose ball and used a stifling defense that held Seton Hall (14-12, 6-9) to just 16 first-half points.

St. John’s led 28-16 at halftime after shutting down the Hall. The Pirates missed 22 of their first 29 shots and needed nearly four minutes to score.

Anticipating this day for months, the players didn’t appear rattled that they were running up and down the World’s Most Famous hardwood.

Well, sort of.

“When I first started playing, my palms were sweaty,” said freshman forward Angie Clark, who scored eight points and pulled down a game-high 15 rebounds. “I was like ‘Oh, my gosh.’ Once I got my first rebound, I calmed down. Playing at the Garden is exciting.”

Added Barnes Arico: “I think that the first couple of minutes, it was like ‘wow.’ Then they realized that it was just another basketball game and to appreciate playing at the Garden after the game.”

That’s exactly what they did, smiling, jumping for joy and pumping their fists as Reka Szavuly dribbled out the game’s final seconds.

Before the game began, there was already a reason to celebrate this memorable day. Shemika Stevens, Kim MacMillan, Nora Gyuris, Crystal Andrews, Sherri Brown and Szavuly were all presented with plaques as the Storm celebrated Senior Day.

“It was emotional, but after awhile, once the game goes on, you just have to play,” said Stevens, who scored 11 points and dished out seven assists in 36 minutes. “Just playing at the Garden was wonderful either way.”

The expected jitters for St. John’s were not present in the early minutes. MacMillan’s first attempt from beyond the arc found nothing but net, as St. John’s scored first and never trailed on the afternoon.

“If you would have told me five years ago that I would have my Senior Day at the Garden, I would have told you that you are crazy,” said the graduate student, who totaled a team-high 15 points. “It was really special to go out with people that you love playing for and love playing with.”

And many were involved with this special, history-making day for St. John’s.

“I think it’s terrific for our women’s program,” said Rick Cole Jr., senior associate athletic director for external affairs. Cole had a large hand in making Sunday’s dream a reality. “These women have worked hard every day. It’s just awesome to see athletes receive something after the hard work.”

Pending Big East and MSG scheduling, Cole said he hopes this is the first of many trips the Red Storm will make to the Garden.

“I think there are a lot of great things to come for our women’s basketball program,” he added.

After closing out the season on the road at Virginia Tech Wednesday night, St. John’s heads to Hartford, Conn., where they will look to pull off an upset in the tourney’s first round Saturday.

“I don’t think anyone’s really seen our potential yet,” MacMillan said. “I think us making the Big East tournament — while it is one of our goals — I don’t think it’s our only goal. We’d like to win a game or two.”

Said Clark, smiling like a kid in a candy store: “It means a lot to me because when we get to the tournament, we’re going to have a big upset.”

Reach contributing writer Joseph Manniello by e-mail at timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

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