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Red Storm women best Pittsburgh, 83-72

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With the St. John’s women trailing 26-16 with 8:26 remaining in the first half, it finally hit them that Saturday’s matinee matchup with Pittsburgh was a must-win game.

Several steals and a suffocating full-court press sandwiched between seven straight points by Reka Szavuly and a 23-8 run helped the Red Storm basketball team take a 39-34 halftime lead en route to an 83-72 win in front of 685 at Alumni Hall.

“Yeah, definitely,” St. John’s senior guard Shemika Stevens said when asked if Saturday’s contest was a must-win for the Storm. “We were saying that before the game, during the game and now after the game we’re happy that it’s over with and we came out with a W. It’s really important as far as Big East standings.”

St. John’s (8-9, 2-4) and Pittsburgh were at the bottom of the standings and found themselves in a similar situation entering Saturday’s game. With only 12 of 14 teams qualifying for the Big East tournament in March, this win gives the Storm an advantage over the Panthers, whom they will likely be battling for one of the final spots in the annual tourney.

“With this team I can’t go into any game saying it’s a must-win, because before I started I didn’t think we’d have a win all season,” said Pittsburgh coach Agnus Berenato, who is in her 21st year as a head coach, her first with the Panthers. “We thought this was a great opportunity for us to get a win, to steal a win, and it’s always tough to go into someone else’s court, especially in the Big East.”

Tough was an understatement.

Five players scored in double figures for the Red Storm, which led by as many as 21 in the second half and with the win improved to 6-3 following a loss this season.

Latoya Kincaid scored a game-high 25 points to go along with 10 rebounds for Pittsburgh (6-11, 2-5), which has not won at Alumni Hall since Jan. 2, 1997.

SJU played its best first half of the season, forcing the Panthers into 16 turnovers, which the Red Storm converted into 18 points. SJU benefited from the double-bonus in the first half, resulting in 13-19 shooting from the charity stripe.

“If we lost tonight and we battled like we did, we would have been proud with the effort that we gave,” said St. John’s coach Kim Barnes Arico, who watched her team shoot 49 percent from the floor and knock down 32 free throws.

With junior transfer Secrett Stubblefield (13.9 points, 5.6 rebounds per game) nursing an ankle sprain on the bench and four-time Big East Freshman of the Week Angie Clark being held to just two first-half points, SJU clawed and hustled its way back into the contest behind the first-half efforts of Danielle Chambers (10 points), Kim MacMillan (nine points) and Szavuly (nine points).

“I wasn’t prepared to shoot the ball,” said Szavuly, who scored a season-high 16 points. “Every shot just fell.”

Once St. John’s went to the full-court press, the game was taken right out of the hands of the Panthers, as the Storm stole numerous inbounds passes and converted them into easy buckets.

Barnes Arico said one of Pittsburgh’s weaknesses was its inability to handle the ball, and she felt her team could take advantage of its opponent’s Achilles’ heel. Her feelings turned into reality Saturday as SJU forced the Panthers into 26 turnovers.

“With a little bit of adversity, we shut down and that was the whole key,” Berenato said. “That was the game.”

After playing at Seton Hall Wednesday night, St. John’s travels to Storrs to take on the defending national champion and perennial powerhouse Connecticut Huskies on Saturday.

Seventeen games into the season and the Storm has already matched last season’s totals in overall wins (eight) and conference victories (two).

“We definitely still have a long way to go, so I don’t want to say that we’re near where we need to be,” Barnes Arico said. “I just think the attitude and effort we gave tonight was very positive for our program.”

Reach contributing writer Joseph Manniello by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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