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St. John’s women hit stride on court

Shenneika Smith takes a jump shot during a game between St. John's and Seton Hall. Photo by Robert Cole
TimesLedger Newspapers

Improved health has brought improved results for the St. John’s women’s basketball team.

December was a struggle for a Red Storm team coming off its first trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Injuries, including losing senior guard Eugenia McPherson to a torn ACL, denied them any continuity. Point guard Nadirah McKenith missed a game with back spasms and Mary Nwachukwu missed two games with a leg injury.

In the processes they suffered one-point home losses to UCLA and Delaware, two of the nation’s top programs.

St. John’s was as healthy as they can be when the calendar hit January, outside of guard Briana Brown missing time with concussion-like symptoms. This has translated into its best stretch so far.

The Red Storm started Big East play 3-0 before falling to No. 2 Notre Dame Sunday. The biggest win was a 48-44 defeat of Rutgers on the road. St. John’s came into the week at 9-7 and tied for fourth in the conference at 3-1.

“Even though it’s three games, it gives us a little bit of confidence knowing that we are playing really well right now,” senior guard Shennieka Smith said.

One of the biggest reasons for the success is the emergence of freshman guard Aliyyah Handford. First-year St. John’s Coach Joe Tartamella felt Handford’s signing late in the summer held her development back early on.

He’s seen a big improvement in her defense and her scoring numbers jump recently. Handford is averaging 11.8 points, including a career-high 16 against Seton Hall, and 6.6 rebounds in the last five games up to the loss to Notre Dame.

“Her success obviously correlates to us being successful as well,” Tartamella said. “When Gina went down, her emergence and her ability to step up for us has been critical throughout the season.”

He thinks the injuries could help the program in the long run. It has forced players like Handford and sophomore Amber Thompson into bigger roles quicker.

“That’s what special about this team. On any given night anyone could step up and make a big shot,” Smith said.

What makes the future even brighter is McPherson red shirted and expected back next season. The Red Storm also has four recruits ranked in the Top 100 of their respective class signed for next season. Tartamella added transfers Danaejah Grant and Selina Archer, from Clemson and Miami, to incoming freshmen Aaliyah Lewis (Bishop Ford) and Jade Walker, of DePaul Catholic (N.J.). It’s a chance to reload in the coach’s eyes.

“It’s an exciting group,” Tartamella said. “It’s one of our better classes that we brought in.”

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