By Joseph Staszewski
Aliyyah Handford tries not to think of the end just yet.
The conclusion of her historic career at St. John’s and her days with senior backcourt mate Danaejah Grant will be here soon, but she has more to accomplish before then.
“I know it is coming to an end,” Handford said.
Handford, coach Joe Tartamella’s first recruit as head coach, already has three trips to the NCAA tournament and the program’s first Big East conference tournament title since 1988 to her credit. She is St. John’s all-time leading scorer and the first women’s player to reach 2,000 points. Grant, since transferring from Clemson for her sophomore year, has seen two big dances and is 10th on the school’s all-time score list.
What the duo doesn’t have is an NCAA tournament run like the one the program enjoyed in the 2011-12 season, when it reached the Sweet 16. It reached the second round two years ago.
“Obviously it’s just the last piece to the puzzle,” Grant said. “It would mean a lot to us to shock the world.”
To do so, St. John’s will likely need to beat No. 2 Baylor (33-1) on its home court in the second round. That task is not intimidating to the Red Storm, however.
“We’re not scared to play anyone,” Grant said. “At the end of the day we put our pants on the same way. At the end of the day it is just basketball.”
Before they can even think about that, the Red Storm must first get past No. 9 Auburn at 7:30 p.m. March 18 in the tournament’s opening round. St. John’s beat the Tigers at Carnesecca Area last year, but fell to them the season before on the road. The familiarity will be a factor.
“Both teams will know each other,” Tartamella said.
St. John’s is playing with a new level of confidence and comfort after winning three games in three days, including one against two-time defending champion DePaul, to claim the Big East title. St. John’s played its most consistent and cohesive basketball of the season, something they expect to continue.
“It helped us to piece together some things that we missing during the season,” Grant said. “We were able to come together more as a team. We figured out everyone’s role on the team as well. That will most likely carry over.”
Tartamella understands he can’t bring his two seniors over to next year’s roster. While he has thought about the end of the run, he says that even after their final game, it won’t sink in for awhile.
“They want to accomplish more just like all of us do,” the coach said. “It will hit me when they walk across that [graduation] stage and practice starts in the summer and they are not there.”
Until then, there is still more business to attend to for his seniors and their teammates.
“They [as a team] have accomplished more than many had expected,” Tartamella said. “To be able to ice it or put a cherry on top would be great.”