By Mitch Abramson
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Entering the game ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in 22 years, the St. John's women's basketball team was downright giddy. But their expressions soon soured once the game began.
Showing the intensity of a classroom full of sleeping children, the Red Storm were ambushed and embarrassed at the game's outset by a Rutgers team that was ranked higher and has a more illustrious history than they do.
No. 25 St. John's made the final score respectable, but its 61-51 loss to No. 9 Rutgers on Wednesday at the Louis Brown Athletic Center should serve as a wake-up call for a team trying to earn a national reputation.
“I thought we were a little tight in the beginning,” said St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico. “They jumped on us in the beginning, but we settled down and were able to come back. They did what they had to do to win.”
Rutgers (16-3, 8-0 Big East) treated the Red Storm and its new status as a nationally-ranked team as a prank. The Scarlet Knights led 33-6 on a three-pointer by Cappie Pondexter (24 points) in the first half and appeared to be toying with the Red Storm.
St. John's (17-4, 7-3) had three players with 10 points – Angela Clark, Danielle Chambers and Kia Wright, but it was a disastrous start for a team that was making its debut in the national polls for the first time in over two decades.
“If we would have came out the first half like we did the second half it would have been our game,” Wright said.
In a miserable five-minute span during the first half, the Red Storm was charged with a variety of transgressions including a shot-clock violation, traveling and two turnovers from passes that went off a player's fingertips and another off an air ball.
Meanwhile, Rutgers was sizzling from the field, making 15-of-28 shots in the first half and laughing their way to a 35-23 lead at the break. St. John's shot just 24 percent from the field in the half while Pondexter was on fire, making 6-of-11 shots, including 3-of-5 from three-point range and Kia Vaughn, a 6-foot-4 freshman from St. Michael's Academy showed that she can be a force in college basketball, finishing the half with 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting and blocking three shots.
“I'm impressed by the way we came back, but I'm also disappointed on the way we came out,” Barnes Arico said.
The Red Storm showed a nationally-ranked heart, however finishing the half on a 17-2 run with Wright, a 5-foot 8 junior guard, who grabbed game-high nine rebounds, leading a spirited comeback with a tip-in and a pair of free throws to provide a glimpse of hope for St. John's, which continued its torrid pace in the second half when its pressing defense seemed to catch Rutgers by surprise.
“I just think we were very hesitant,” said Rutgers head coach, C. Vivian Stringer in response to facing full court pressure from St. John's.
The Red Storm scored eight consecutive points to open the second half and pulled within 38-31. Lisa Claxton (seven points and two assists) hit a jumper to bring the Red Storm to within 42-40 with 9:04 left in the game.
But the Scarlet Knights received five points from Pondexter and Vaughn in a 20-seconds span that gave them a 53-46 lead with 3:52 left. St. John's responded with six consecutive free throws but it wasn't enough.
“They wanted it,” said Pondexter. “The first time for them in 20 year they're in the top 25. Why not fight?”
Reach reporter Mitch Abramson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.