By Joseph Staszewski
The St. John’s women’s basketball team won its third game in three days to take home its first Big East Tournament championship since 1988 with a 50-37 win over Creighton in the final at DePaul’s McGrath-Phillips Arena on March 8.
The win sends the Red Storm (23-9) to its sixth NCAA Tournament in the last seven years, as the Johnnies will find out who their tournament opponents will be when the women’s bracket is released Monday. St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella is happy and relieved to be adding a new banner in Carnesecca Arena.
“It’s the one thing that’s bothered me for 13 years at St. John’s, and we’ve been able to change it now,” he told reporters after the game. “And these young ladies, along with the rest of that locker room, we have that forever. That’s what I told them. This is a thing that doesn’t go away. It’s for all time.”
Early on it was evident that each team was struggling to find some rhythm after playing games on consecutive days. St. John’s led 21-20 at halftime after a lackluster first half that saw some ugly offense on both sides.
After a third quarter in which just 15 points were scored combined, the game was locked in a 28-28 tie heading into the fourth. But the Red Storm would finally pull away in the final frame.
St. John’s led 31-30 with 9:06 remaining in the game, and from there the Red Storm made its run. A layup from Aaliyah Lewis extended the lead to three, and back-to-back jumpers from Jade Walker and Danaejah Grant gave St. John’s a 37-30 advantage with 5:04 left.
Creighton was able to pull back to within four in the following minutes, but a 7-0 run fueled by some clutch baskets and free throws from Lewis, who scored seven of her 14 points in the fourth quarter, all but put the game away.
“The fourth quarter’s been huge,” Tartamella said. “We told them in the timeout ‘this was the time’ and our seniors led the way with some big plays… we got tougher as the game went on.”
Overall defense was the story of the game for the Red Storm. St. John’s gave up just 16 points in a stellar defensive second half, and held Creighton to a dismal 25 percent shooting (13 of 53) on the night, including two-for-15 from three-point range.
“We just knew that it all boils down to how we play on defense, and we shut them down in the fourth quarter” senior guard Aliyyah Handford said. “We were locked in. Our defense led to our offense.”
The Red Storm’s pair of stellar seniors, Grant and Handford, combined for just 20 points, with Handford dropping 11 and Grant scoring nine. Lewis added a team-high eight rebounds as well.
Grant and Handford had been averaging 19.4 and 16.7 points per game, respectively, this season,. However it took a defensive effort for the Red Storm to pull off the win.
Prior to the title game win, St. John’s took down Georgetown and 18th-ranked, top-seeded DePaul in back-to-back nights. They will compete in their fourth straight postseason under Tartamella when the NCAA Tournament kicks off.
“It means a lot to get to the big dance and to have this chip on our shoulder is great,” Handford said. “It’s a great feeling for our career and [Tartamella’s] first time winning the championship.”