By Mitch Abramson
Both teams crossed paths at Carnesecca Arena Sunday with more than Big East bragging rights at stake. Could the Red Storm improve to 12-0? Would UConn, winners of the last three NCAA championships, continue its downward spiral after losing to No. 10 Michigan State 67-51 on December 29?It didn't take long to find out. Connecticut jumped out to a 10-0 lead and didn't look up until it led 31-8 at the half. The Huskies out-muscled and out-hustled the Red Storm's players, who were rushing their shots as if the 24-second shot had been condensed to five. Connecticut was taller, stronger and better prepared and battered St. John's 60-32 in the Big East opener for both teams.Sporting a pedestrian 6-3 record, Connecticut played with laser-like efficiency, finding teammates for open looks while St. John's panicked and ran isolation plays. Connecticut used a noticeable size advantage to outrebound St. John's 52-39 and succeeded in defusing the Red Storm's most active player, 6-foot-1 forward Angela Clark, who finished with 5 points and 4 rebounds and missed several shots close to the basket.”I knew it was going to be tough going against them because they're a good team, but I didn't think it was going to be that tough,” Clark said. “They took me out of my entire game.” If anyone was trying to prove that they had “game,” it was St. John's sophomore guard Kia Wright, who left UConn the summer before her freshman year, citing a desire to be closer to Long Island where she grew up. Wright was the fifth all-time leading scorer in Long Island history with 2,148 points at Copiague HS.Sputtering and hiccupping like a stalled vehicle, Wright never found her groove and fell into the same malaise that affected her teammates. She finished with 5 points on 1-for-9 shooting. The Red Storm was led by Kati Kurtosi's 8 points while Connecticut had three players in double figures.”It was difficult being out there playing against them,” Wright said. “I didn't expect this. I thought we would come out ready to play as a team, be more focused and go out and give it our all no matter what the score was. It was hard at times. We fought, but we weren't consistent.”The man in a dark patterned sweater, the kind that Lou Carnesecca used to wear, had something to do with that. Connecticut's coach, Geno Auriemma, managed to pay respects to former St. John's skipper while turning the arena named after him into an asylum for the Husky fans, many of whom took buses to the game.”This is the first time that we've played here, when the court was named after coach Carnesseca, but even beyond that. Back when he was coaching at St. John's, my first couple of years in the Big east, I used to watch him all the time,” Auriemma said. “I always admired the way he coached his team and the way he was, and I figured we could use some of that.”Moments later, the loquacious Auriemma paid tribute to Kim Barnes Arico, St. John's third-year coach, admitting he admired her as person.If this is how he treats his friends…Using a scrambling defense that choked the life out of St. John's shooters, the Red Storm went 3-for-32 from the field in the first half and went 0-for-3 from 3-point range, crippling for a team that leans so heavily on its long-distance scoring.The mood of the players was somewhat hard to interpret after the loss. The game had been so one-sided, such a beating, that they actually seemed grateful to have gotten through the ordeal with all their limbs intact.”I know that a lot of people are hanging their heads, and I don't think that we should,” Barnes Arico said. “The program has come so far, and we just played the defending national champions, and I know that some people think UConn is struggling right now because they have three losses, but (Auriemma) is a great coach, and they're a great program, and I'm sure they'll finish in the top ten in the country, so I'm proud of the effort.”St. John's gets another litmus test when it hosts No. 24 Rutgers (8-2) Saturday at 2 p.m.St. John's 60, Pittsburgh 57. Wright had 18 points, Clark had 15 points and 10 rebounds and Andrea Peterson and Tara Walker added 8 points apiece for the Red Storm Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. The Panthers (9-4, 1-1) were led by Mercedes Walker, who scored 20 points.Reach reporter Mitch Abramson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.