By Dylan Butler
HARTFORD, CONN. — It was two hours after arguably the worst and certainly the most embarrassing season of St. John’s men’s basketball ended when the Red Storm women took the court at the Hartford Civic Center.
Two hours after the men were demolished by Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden, two hours after a team of eight players equally comprised of scholarship athletes and walk-ons ended its season with a record of 6-21, 1-15 in the Big East, two hours after the once-proud men’s basketball team failed to make the Big East tournament for the first time in history, the St. John’s women made their triumphant return to postseason play.
Two years after suffering through a 3-24 season and 22 months after Kim Barnes Arico was hired to resurrect the Big East doormat, St. John’s returned to the Big East tournament.
Sure, the Red Storm lost, 84-59, to a West Virginia team that was in St. John’s situation last year — it won just four conference games and lost in the first round of the tournament — in front of what was left of an announced crowd of 9,639.
It was a major accomplishment for the women’s basketball team, even if it barely registered with most everyone else in the metropolitan area.
There wasn’t exactly a media crush for the post-game press conference Saturday night. Amid a conference room full of empty blue chairs and a camera platform sans cameras, Barnes Arico fielded questions from yours truly and some dude from a West Virginia paper who walked out after about a minute.
“It’s crummy that you end on a note like today, but the season was very positive and we’re very happy about that,” Barnes Arico told the assembled press (me and the other guy). “One of the great things that we did this year is we won the games that we could win. Besides winning those games we were competitive in all the other games, which we really haven’t been in prior years.”
It’s been a long time since St. John’s was a Big East powerhouse. The Express, aptly named after its first coach, Vicky Kresse, won the first two conference championships in 1983 and 1984 and captured its last tournament title in 1988.
Since then the Red Storm hasn’t won more than two games in the tournament again.
After Kresse and Don Perrelli combined to win more than 70 percent of their games, the following four coaches each had sub-.500 records.
A year after going 8-19 — 2-14 in the conference — in her first season, Barnes Arico led the Red Storm to a 10-18 record, its first year of double digits wins since 1999-00, and the team doubled its wins in the tough Big East conference.
“To build the program back up to where it was in the ’80s, it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Kathy Meehan, the school’s associate vice president for athletics and a former women’s basketball player. “It’s a process and a journey, and I think they’re doing a great job in moving them forward.”
Despite the improvement, Barnes Arico was not named Big East Coach of the Year. That honor went to West Virginia’s Mike Carey.
And forward Angie Clark, who led all conference freshmen in scoring and rebounding and was one of two unanimous selections to the All-Freshman team, was robbed of the Big East Freshman of the Year award. Once again the Red Storm was one upped by the Mountaineers as Meg Bulger — the other unanimous selection — earned the honor.
“It took me 17 years to find someone I love to play for,” said graduate assistant Kim MacMillan, one of four players to transfer in from another Division I school since Barnes Arico took over. “They certainly have done everything they possibly can to get the team where we are, and I know they’ll be successful next year.”
On the day she was hired, Barnes Arico vowed to recruit some of the top local high school athletes, something the coaches before her didn’t or couldn’t do.
Since then, the Red Storm has brought in Clark from Copiague, L.I., Mercedes Dukes from the Bronx and was in the running for St. John Villa star Christy Marrone, who committed to Virginia Tech. And others like Massapequa’s Brittney Messina have expressed interest in staying home to play at St. John’s.
Two hours after their first Big East tournament game in three years tipped off, two hours after the St. John’s pep band appropriately played Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” when they hit the court, the Red Storm players, dejected, left the Hartford Civic Center.
But unlike the end of the men’s season, there is a lot to look forward to next year for the St. John’s women.
Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.