Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Guru Report: St. John's Gains New Life On Rutgers' Turnover

By Mel Greenberg

JAMAICA, N.Y. –
With another Atlantic Coast power easily dispatched by No. 2 Connecticut, which took down No. 3 Duke, the last unbeaten Division I women’s team, Monday night, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma turned his attention to Big East matters and Saturday’s visit from No. 9 DePaul to Gampel Pavilion.

Chatting with reporters up in Storrs, Conn., after the formal postgame conference about the Duke game ended, Auriemma observed, “Now it’s going to get interesting. A lot of things are going to begin to happen in the Big East the next several weeks.”
In other words, many of the better teams in the Big East were about to collide to decide their regular season conference fates, which will also impact the NCAA tournament field and draw.

Soon after Auriemma spoke, the Guru penned – ok -- clicked the keyboard, to produce the previous blog post and noted in the opening paragraph about coaches never wanting to put games in the hands of the officials.

Well sure enough, less than 24 hours things later Big East things began to happen right here in St. John’s Carnesecca Arena in a metropolitan battle between the Red Storm and visiting Rutgers that ended with the outcome affected by the blow of an official’s whistle in a game that was also televised on the CBS College Sports network.

For St. John’s followers the 51-48 win meant new life off an effort by sophomore Amanda Burakoski, who had a career-high 16 points in what was only the fifth win against Rutgers in a 36-game series dating back to 1978.

Both teams had struggled to score early before the Red Storm (16-6, 5-4 Big East) had pushed to a double-digit lead and then seemed about to lose after two costly turnovers late in the game – one of which was unforced.

“I think this really helped our confidence – the locker room was as excited as it had been,” St. John’s coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “And we had been playing better but a win like this can really propel us into the rest of the season. I think if it had wound up the other way I would have spent a lot of time trying to build them back up again.

“People had forgotten about us because we were 4-4 in the league,” she said. “But we were also 4-4 in the league because we’ve played some pretty darn good teams. We played Connecticut, we played Notre Dame at Notre Dame, and we played DePaul, and right now those three are probably Top 10 teams.

“And then we lost at Louisville, which is outstanding at home. So our kids lost a little confidence with that,” she added.

“So for us to get that win, and we had to battle back – Rutgers is a great team, but a lot of people don’t see that. They have a lot of great players in their program. They’re very physical. (Stringer) is one of the best coaches in America.

“And anytime you can beat a program like that, I just feel it’s an outstanding win for our kids.”

Meanwhile, on the other side, the Scarlet Knights’ defeat becomes the latest in a long history of excruciating setbacks and while there have been worst moments for both Rutgers and Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer, this one has brought the New Jersey contingent to a near death experience for the current season.

One moment, Rutgers (12-9, 5-3 Big East), highlighted by Monique Oliver’s game-high 22 points and 11 rebounds, had mounted a stirring rally from a second-half deficit of 14 points to reach the cusp of one of the few meaningful victories to date this season on another grueling schedule of nonconference and conference confrontations.

The next it was gone and ironically the demise was caused by the one thing Stringer sought to avoid.

Just when it looked like Erica Wheeler was sending the game into overtime with two seconds remaining by making a second foul shot attempt after missing the first, the score was nullified by April Sykes being charged with a lane violation, which left St. John’s still ahead 49-48.

Stringer, who avoided an opening statement and went straight to entertain questions, said in the postgame press conference she had pulled her posts back from the lane trying to avoid anyone getting caught committing a miscue to perhaps put the Red Storm on the line with one last chance.

“I didn’t want there to be a call, trusting people to make the foul shots,” Stringer said. “But things don’t always work that way. I think we miscommunicated.

“At the end a free throw we didn’t make could have been the difference and we didn’t execute.”

Khadijah Rushdan was then forced to foul Shenneika Smith, who made two free throws to determine the final score.

Stringer was asked if officials were calling the game tighter down the stretch and declined to answer, citing the conference rule about criticizing officials.

But she did say, “You never blame officials for things. We need to be a better team tough enough to not ever put ourselves in position where we have to depend on an official making what we think is the right call.

“So at the end of the day, it’s our fault. We did enough dumb things ourselves. We made enough turnovers (22 vs. St. John’s 21) to really put them in position where it could have been a worse score than what it was.

“You have to play smart and this was a good team,” Stringer said.

Sykes, as in Yikes, also put St. John’s in position to retake the lead when she stepped out of bounds with 35 seconds left when Rutgers had gone ahead 48-47.

The Red Storm took advantage and regained the advatange on Nadirah McKenith’s jump shot with nine seconds remaining.

But a foul by Eugeneia McPherson made it seem the Red Storm joy was about to go to waste before the error by Sykes, who was 0-for-10 from the field, including 0-for-4 on three point attempts, and five turnovers to go with six rebounds.

Incidentally, this one was devoid of Rutgers beat writers who chose to stay on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River fearful that the predicted ice conditions could hamper getting home for coverage of Wednesday’s football signing day.

The media room, however, was packed because a group of St. John’s journalism students was covering the game for a class assignment.

Barnes Arico’s nine-year-old son Trevor, seated at the podium with her, even asked her a question and it was about how much pressure she felt after the Red Storm lost the lead.

Fortunately, jobs are scarce these days in the industry or he might be signed as cheap labor to replace a high salaried reporter.

As for Trevor’s mom, whose Red Storm had been in the Associated Press women’s poll before a series of tough Big East knocked them out, she said she had never seen a finish like this one.

“Being an underdog for so many years, you always feel like you’re on the short end of getting a call in a crucial minute,” she said. “And I just think that’s the nature of the game.

“Usually the stronger teams make the big plays, that’s why they end up getting the calls. It was the right call. We already talked about it. We already reviewed it. But for us to get that call, I think that was big and we were deserving of it. But I think it was the correct call.

“But I could not believe it, but she did do it, and it was a great break for us.”

And it was back to heartbreak for Rutgers and its small but hardy group of fans who thought they were about to witness a happy ending to what had been a dismal night in what had to be considered a must-win game at the outset.

Now, if one uses Stringer’s evaluation of types of opponents, the Scarlet Knights are 1-9 against real teams, perhaps 2-9 if either Princeton or Syracuse is factored.
And if Tuesday’s game was a must-win to get on track, Sunday’s home game against Syracuse and Tuesday’s home game against Pittsburgh could be called must-not-lose encounters.

And after that are a series of heavyweights in a road swing to Notre Dame, DePaul, and Marquette, which are all ranked. There’s also a home game near the end of the month against West Virginia.

Next stop for the Guru – a home game at Temple at noon Wednesday against St. Louis as the Owls try to keep pace with Xavier in the Atlantic 10.

-- Mel

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