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Sure, the Huskies manhandled St. John's in a dominating 60-32 win to open the Big East slate in front of 3,581, its 21st straight game against the Red Storm. And, yes, the parking lot outside the newly renamed arena was filled with tour buses that brought throngs of rabid Husky fans down I-95 for the game and press row was packed with a bevy of UConn beat writers. But this game was different than each of the 21 previous games. That's because there was a buzz about St. John's. And that's something that hasn't been said in a long, long time. Some spectators walked into Carnesecca Arena for the first time, not wearing UConn blue but sporting St. John's red T-shirts, like the little girl in the front row who enthusiastically rooted for the Red Storm into the final minute of the game."Boo, Connecticut, Go Red! C'mon, you can do better, I know you can."Surely she was unaware that just three years ago UConn handed St. John's its worst loss ever, 118-44 - on Feb. 23, 2001- and on Dec. 4, 2001 the Red Storm lost 88-28.But that was before Kim Barnes Arico breathed new life into the program, brought a belief and a desire never before seen on campus. St. John's has had moderate success, winning back-to-back Big East titles in the infancy of the conference and going to the NCAA tournament in 1983 and 1984 and again in 1988. That success, though, was before the sport exploded in popularity, thanks in part to former Christ the King stars Chamique Holdsclaw and Sue Bird. Then, women's basketball barely got a mention in mainstream media. Now the players grace magazine covers and play on national television. Barnes Arico has made tremendous strides since becoming the seventh coach in St. John's history on May 7, 2002. She inherited a team that went 3-24 the year before, and led them to an 8-19 record in 2002-03. In 2003-04, the Red Storm finished 10-18 and went to the Big East tournament for the first time since 2001."I know there are a million UConn fans and there's always a million UConn fans but there were a lot of St. John's fans also," Barnes Arico said. "The atmosphere, the attitude, the whole culture of women's basketball at St. John's is changing."Two more wins and Barnes Arico will equal the win total of Charlene Thomas-Swinson's best year, a 13-18 record in 1998-99. She coached three years before Darcel Estep coached three years. Neither coach saw much success.Before that there was Joe Mullaney, Jr., who was the longest tenured St. John's women's coach. He spent 12 seasons on the sideline before he was fired after a 6-21 season in 1995-96. Four more wins and St. John's will have its first winning season in 10 years.How far has Barnes Arico brought the program? Some thought the Red Storm had a shot at beating UConn. That hasn't been uttered around here since Jan. 6, 1993."There are a lot of steps involved here, obviously. You don't go from where they were to where they want to be overnight," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who wore a plaid sweater in honor of Carnesecca who was sitting courtside. "She's already way ahead of where the program has been the last couple of years, way ahead. And I like her, too, which is a lot more than you can say for some of the coaches."And maybe the reaction of the Red Storm players showed just how far the program has come. They were downtrodden, not upbeat, after the game."If people were here three years ago, they would say that we've made great strides. I know the young ladies don't want to hear about that because they want to be national champs and they want to beat UConn but I think it's a process," Barnes Arico said. "We've definitely taken steps forward in the process and we're going to continue to do that."Reach Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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