Just two days after being named Big East rookie of the week, St. John's sophomore forward Aiysha Smith wanted to show the league that the honor was no fluke. In the final eight minutes against the Pittsburgh Panthers she did just that. The 6-foot-2 native of Detroit scored 10 points, including six straight during a key run that catapulted the Red Storm to a 56-47 win at Alumni Hall last Wednesday.
The victory was St. John's second straight in conference and first at home since Dec. 19.
"It feels real good, because we've been struggling at home and we were just trying to get that first Big East win [at home]," said sophomore guard Giani Bowles, who scored a game-high 19 points. "It just all came down to who wanted it more and I think we played with more heart tonight."
Trailing 44-39 with 8:03 to play, Smith went to work. First, she sank a bucket in the paint that cut the Panthers lead to three, 44-41. She followed with a strong post move to make it a one-point game and then rejected Pittsburgh's Celeste Barkley on the other end. Smith found herself with the ball on the next trip down the floor and drew the fourth foul on Pittsburgh's Amanda Wittenmyer. Smith's two free throws gave St. John's (8-12, 3-7 Big East) its first lead of the game.
"In the timeout we told everyone, we have to go to Aiysha, she has to get some touches," St. John's head coach Darcel Estep said. "I think that really made a difference because you had Wittenmyer in foul trouble, LaTonya Lawrence cannot be as active because she has to worry that her teammate cannot help out. It really helped for Aiysha to get that composure and do exactly what we needed. Once she came in that way in the middle, it opened up other things for everyone else."
Junior guard Latasha Thompson followed Smith's free throws with a steal and a layup to cap the 8-0 run that put the Red Storm up, 47-44.
Pittsburgh (12-8, 3-6) cut St. John's lead to two, 49-47, on a free throw by Wittenmyer (13 points, 11 rebounds) with 2:05 to go in regulation. Bowles dashed whatever hopes the Panthers had of winning the game on St. John's next possession. With time winding down on the shot clock, the 5-foot-5 sophomore guard scored on a runner from the foul line, while getting fouled by Michelle Katkowski, to put the Red Storm ahead, 51-47, with 49 seconds left.
"I was just being aggressive tonight, I guess and I haven't been doing that lately," Bowles said. "My coach has told me I need to drive more. I just tried to take over a little bit and I got the foul and it went in."
Despite missing the free throw, Bowles grabbed her own rebound and was then fouled by Gina Montesano. This time, in a one-and-one situation, Bowles knocked down both foul shots to put the Red Storm ahead, 53-47 with 37 seconds left.
"The bottom line with Giani is she's a player, she's a gamer, she wants to win it for you, she is a player who is beginning to mature in the system now," Estep said. "I am so proud of her play today, because she did exactly what we needed. We needed her defense, she gave it to us. We needed her offense, she made it happen. That's something we want from her day in and day out."
Ana Pericic and Thompson combined to make three of their four free throws in the final 12 seconds to ice the win for St. John's.
"The timing is right," Estep said. "This is the time you want your team getting to understand the whole philosophy you've been teaching from Oct. 16. This is the time of the year you want to see that unity."
Smith missed her eighth double-double of the year by two rebounds. She had eight boards, three blocks and one steal for St. John's. Smith also went 4-4 from the free throw line, leading the Red Storm. As a team St. John's shot 85.7 percent (10-12) from the line for the game.
"I kept shooting because in the beginning I was off and everyone kept saying, 'keep shooting' so I just took my time, squared off and kept shooting," Smith said. "We had confidence, but we just couldn't pull it together to get the wins we needed. But now we are further on in the season, but we are pulling together."
St. John's now takes to the road to lock horns with Notre Dame Saturday night after a game scheduled for Wednesday night at Syracuse.
The Red Storm return home Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. to take on the nation's number one-ranked team, the University of Connecticut, at Alumni Hall.
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