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.
(Guru’s note: A local-specific roundup is above this blog).
By Mel Greenberg
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Fresh with a newly-acquired coaching record at St. John’s, a new-found mastery of No. 17 Rutgers in an ongoing local rivalry out of the Big East, and a team that has healed from its injuries, Kim Barnes Arico was on the campaign stump following her Red Storm’s 61-52 upset of the Scarlet Knights Sunday night at the Louis A. Brown Athletic Center.
“We feel like we’re a great team, getting all our pieces back together again – we’re healthy and it was really an important game for us to win against a ranked team on the road – I feel we’re one of the best teams out there so I’m happy the kids pulled it out down the end and we beat a great team on their home court so that was really an important win for us.”
The win was the second straight this season over Rutgers and fourth straight after suffering a string of 17 straight losses dating back to the mid-1990s in conference competition.
St. John’s (17-8, 9-3 Big East) began in November as one of a pile of Big East teams in the Associated Press women’s poll but the Red Storm, missing such players as all-American candidate Da’Shena Stevens due to injuries, suffered some early upsets and dropped out of sight.
Now Barnes Arico wants back in and it could happen considering the unusually high number of ranked teams that suffered losses this past week, several to unranked teams such as Rutgers (17-7, 6-5), which suffered its fourth straight setback.
Asked if she was surprised St. John’s wasn’t ranked, Barnes Arico quickly responded, “Yeah!
“I mean you look at us, don’t you think we should be ranked? If you look at our schedule and who we’ve played and who we lost to, maybe you take one or two exceptions out of that mix, but when we’ve had all of our players out on the court, we’ve had two losses – one was a close one to Notre Dame and one was to Marquette and that’s it when we’ve had our entire team there,” she continued.
“So we’ve beaten ranked opponents, we’ve won on the road, we beat some other teams without our full package so I think – right now, here’s a trivia question for you,” she said.
“How many teams are 10-3 in the Big East and not ranked in the last 10 years – probably nobody but that’s a bunch of squat right now.”
Actually, with a crush of outsiders looking to get ranked, St. John’s is likely to get a strong shove from behind from West Virginia, which upset No. 2 Notre Dame – the conference favorite – on the road Sunday afternoon in South Bend, Ind.
St. John’s win gave Barnes Arico in her ten years at the fabled school on the men’s side in Jamaica, N.Y., outside Manhattan, a total of 169 victories – one more than the previous record holder – Joe Mullaney Jr., who has been the longtime aide with the current title of associate head coach to Villanova’s Harry Perretta.
“It means I’ve been here a long time,” Barnes Arico smiled about the number, which came on a day in which Drexel’s Denise Dillon earned her 144th to tie the Division I record held by former coach Lil Haas at the Philadelphia school in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Tina Martin of Delaware, another CAA school, picked up her 300th win in her 16th season, a total she has gotten to much quicker in the last several years with Elena Delle Donne, the nation’s leading scorer.
In Sunday’s win Nadirah McKenith led St. John’s with 18 points and hit five of six foul shots in the last 36 seconds to seal the win.
McKenith from nearby Newark is 4-0 against Rutgers, which she said didn’t give her a look when she was being recruited.
“It’s great. I didn’t get a call or anything. Being from Jersey, after a while I got over it and I just love it here at St. John’s. I think it’s a better place for me anyway.”
Barnes Arico credits the players she has attracted as a key to her success.
“It’s nice to be part of a program and the kids have been tremendous and the growth of the program has been great because people like Nadirah has come here and said, `I want to make a difference.’ Nadirah, Da’Shena (16 points), Shennika (Smith) (11 points), they could have gone anywhere in the country to play basketball – they’re that good,” Barnes Arico said.
“And they said, `I want to come to St. John’s and I want to put St. John’s on the map,’ so it’s kids like that I have to be thankful for.”
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, meanwhile, is perplexed by a squad that has lost four straight – though the middle stretch included routs by Notre Dame and No. 3 Connecticut.
Khadijah Rushdan, the senior leader from Wilmington, Del., was back in action after missing the second half of the loss at Georgetown and the last two games because of a concussion.
She scored 17 points but missed time in the game because of foul trouble.
Monique Oliver had 11 points and 14 rebounds.
It was another game of deep shooting woes – the Scarlet Knights were 27.9 percent from the field – and the game was similar to a recent last second win at home against DePaul in which Rutgers rallied from a 16-point deficit in the second half.
This time the Scarlet Knights trailed by as many as 17 early in the second half and still by a large differential at 15 with 5:55 left in the game but rallied to within four at 56-52 with 48 seconds left when April Sykes hit a pair of free throws.
But the Red Storm held on the rest of the way when Sykes missed a long 3-point attempt and Rushdan missed a layup.
Eugenia McPherson missed two foul shots with 42 seconds left but Rutgers lost the ball going for the rebound.
It was suggested to Stringer that this time of year Rutgers is usually over past struggles and making a postseason run to the NCAAs.
“I know that. I agree 100 percent. And I told the team that exactly. We’ve spent too much time going over things we should have learned early, so honestly instead of us being the team every (Rutgers) team has always been, two things came into play.
“We weren’t working to sharpen things up. We were working to remember real basic things – that’s No. 1. And No. 2, I think we may have been a victim of our own perceived success,” Stringer continued.
“Perceived in that we were a whole lot better than we were. I knew we weren’t. As the competition got better we didn’t really pay attention that we could get away with a few things – but St. John’s executes well – they played well as a team – they have an attacking guard and they do what they do very well.
“There’s been no team that I’ve coached that’s quite like this one based on progression and where we should be. It first starts after a while of years understanding what’s in front of us – you take it to heart and you address it.
“You address it in a solid way. Most teams get scared because they’re afraid of what could possibly happen. But it may be my fault in a way because our schedule allowed us to be fooled and that’s it.”
In the past Stringer started out with a killer slate of nonconference foes, which may have caused her players to take early lumps, but that toughened the squad for the annual gauntlet across the Big East.
This time, with a high influx of talented freshmen, the schedule was a bit softer enabling wins to pile up going into January.
Rushdan, who was named to the 20-member watch list last week by the United States Basketball Writers Association, was asked about the redundancy in which
Rutgers has been falling way behind and scrambling to pull out wins.
“It’s a tiring way to play. It hurts, especially because I’m a senior. It definitely does,” she said trying to find the right words to describe the situation. “It’s definitely been like that for the last couple of games.
“It doesn’t have to be – that’s what hurts the most. It doesn’t have to be.
“How do you come out and play so hard for the last 10 minutes and you could have been doing that first 20 and never be put in that situation.
“We come back from 15, 16 and then we’re within five so imagine if we were playing the game we needed to be and we’d be up by 16 so it takes a lot out of you – it definitely does.”
Stringer then chimed in.
“We don’t have a killer instinct. Some of the reason I’ve mixed the lineup is to establish a tempo and I switched it today. I’m going to have to find the first five and see if I can find people who have that intensity.
“Hopefully, we’ll come out of it. What you saw is what we’ve been looking at it for the last five games and it’s not pretty. Quite possibly if I knew what to do for sure about it, I would do that. But I’m really not sure.
“Some things kind of make sense. And other things – it goes over our head.”