Guru's Musings: St. John's Eyes Return To Prominence After Stunning UConn
(Guru’s note: A roundup is under this post leading with the Rutgers-Villanova game. If you are in melgreenberg.com, then click Mel’s blog on the left to get to blogspot and the full archive.)
By Mel Greenberg
The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team may have set various standards of invincibility since winning its first NCAA title in 1995 but when the time comes for the Huskies to become somewhat flawed they certainly find ways to pick the moment.
St. John’s Shenneika Smith Saturday night joined former Duke star Jessica Foley to earn a special place in UConn’s Hall of Opponent Infamy.
The Red Storm junior nailed a three-pointer with eight seconds left in a Big East game to give St. John’s a narrow 57-56 victory at the Huskies’ Gampel Pavilion campus arena in Storrs to end UConn’s NCAA-record 99-home game win streak as well as a streak of 261 home wins against unranked opponents and 173 overall.
Dating back to the last home loss to an unranked opponent by UConn, the span is almost 19 years back to 1993.
Foley did her mischief for the Blue Devils at the then-named Hartford Civic Center hitting a trey at the buzzer on Jan. 3, 2004, to end what had been a NCAA home streak record of 69 games, forcing UConn to share the mark with Tennessee until reaching a new standard last season.
Smith’s dagger came on UConn’s senior night when the Huskies (24-3, 11-2 Big East) bid adieu to Tiffany Hayes in pre-game ceremonies, though she obviously has more appearances ahead for the fan base, including next Monday’s Big East showdown against No. 4 Notre Dame at the re-named XL Center in Hartford.
And then, of course, there’s the conference tournament as well as NCAA early round games likely down the road in Bridgeport and, if the Huskies advance, regional games at the University of Rhode Island in nearby Kingston.
Meanwhile, when it comes to St. John’s (18-8, 10-3) being an underdog, truth be told, there are unranked opponents and there are unranked opponents.
When No. 7 Kentucky lost at Alabama 77-75 Thursday night in a Southeastern Conference game in Tuscaloosa now that is what you call a total shocker with the Crimson Tide improving to a mediocre 12-15 overall and 2-11 in the SEC while the first-place Wildcats fell to 21-5 and 10-3 in the conference.
And on a somewhat lesser scale, West Virginia’s win at then-No. 2 Notre Dame last weekend also fits the underdog role.
St. John’s, by all rights, had the credentials a week ago to return to the AP Poll after winning at then-No. 17 Rutgers with Smith hitting a bunch of foul shots down the stretch to earn the Red Storm the upset.
Until recently St. John’s had been missing several key players with injuries so before St. Bonaventure fans, enthralled with their AP poll debut two weeks ago, keep playing the comparative game – the Bonnies that beat the Red Storm in New York early in the year is not the one on the floor at the moment in terms of health.
The Bonnies also have a win at West Virginia.
After the win at Rutgers, Red Storm coach Kim Barnes Arico, who became the all-time wins leader at the school with 169 – now 170 -- made her case for returning to the rankings pointing out, “How many teams in the Big East have ever been 10-3 and not been ranked -- like almost never.”
Her statement went on death ears though enough of the nationwide media panel gave St. John’s points to move near a ranking.
Despite the omission the Red Storm had quite a week with the two wins and also being awarded a host site at Carnesca Arena next season for a set of first and second-round games in the NCAA tournament.
Connecticut had not lost at home since Rutgers upset the Huskies in 2007 in the Big East title game in Hartford.
That season UConn had four losses overall, including the Big East setback and one in the NCAA tourney. The three to date are the most since then and most in the regular season – the Huskies have previously lost at then-No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 1 Baylor – since losing four including a sweep by Rutgers in 2004-06.
NCAA counts Big East tournament games in Hartford as well as NCAA tourneys on campus and in Hartford as home games for purposes of keeping streak records.
The 2006 season ended in the regional final in Bridgeport when Duke advanced in overtime 63-61 to land in the Women’s Final Four in Boston where the Blue Devils lost to Atlantic Coast Conference rival Maryland in overtime in the title game.
Stanford last season at home cut off UConn’s overall NCAA record streak – men or women – at 90 but that was a one-sided affair in favor of the Cardinal.
The Huskies shook it off and darted to the Final Four but a shot at a third-straight NCAA title was short-circuited by Notre Dame in the national semifinals in Indianapolis and that finish was not as dramatic.
St. John’s is just the fifth team since 1993 to win at Storrs against UConn, joining Tennessee, Georgia, Notre Dame, and Rutgers.
That was the same year the Red Storm last beat UConn anywhere, setting off a losing streak of 27 games in the series between the two schools.
"It's truly unbelievable," Barnes Arico said. "There aren't many teams that can say they beat UConn in this place and now we're one of them."
At the beginning of the year Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma noted his squad was not likely to win the NCAA title this time around, though he followed with a quip the Huskies would not lose a game the next two years, alluding to the super recruiting class heading to UConn this fall.
He named Notre Dame, Baylor and Tennessee as likely contenders unless any of them mess up then perhaps his team might have a shot.
Tennessee, whose legendary Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt has been battling early onset Alzheimer’s, has struggled and Notre Dame took the loss to West Virginia.
Baylor had a struggle Saturday before winning over Texas Tech to claim the regular season Big 12 title.
Though Auriemma had lowered the threshold with his preseason remarks, giving up leads late in the losses at Baylor and Notre Dame brought home the notion that in a so-called rebuilding year following the graduation of superstar Maya Moore, the Huskies might just pull off title No. 8.
In Connecticut any Huskies loss means the world has just ended to their rabid fan base, but Auriemma tried to offer a dose of reality in his postgame remarks.
"Days like today are a reminder that you're only supposed to win when you play really well and beat the other team. We didn't deserve to win. I don't care if we won 900 in a row at home," Auriemma said. "Leading up to that last shot, if that shot goes in — hey that's 100 in a row. Realistically, though, St. John's outplayed us today. They did what they wanted to do better than what we wanted to do. It was a fitting end for them."
The last shot of the game was Bria Hartley’s long attempt and miss from the corner for UConn as time expired.
Smith came into the game connecting on only 3-for-22 trey attempts this season before her game-winner.
Meanwhile it says something that busting UConn streaks most times comes from a Big East rival.
In 2003 the Huskies went into the conference title game at Rutgers with a then-NCAA record 70 straight wins and fell to Villanova, but recovered to win a second of three-straight national crowns.
Now it’s Barnes Arico’s turn to feel what Villanova coach Harry Perretta felt the night of his Wildcats’ improbably win – though his squad was talented and experienced that season.
It's truly unbelievable," she said. "There aren't many teams that can say they beat UConn at this place and now we're one of them."
"Isn't it great for women's basketball,” Barnes Arico noted of the number of upsets that have been occurring. A week ago six ranked teams fell to unranked teams on the same night.
“It's unbelievable and great for our game, our game is growing. When I first started here, people were losing by 50 or 60 night in and night out. It says women's basketball has come a long way and there is a lot of parity in the game."
But of course, she also had some time to return to campaigning for a ranking she sought after the Rutgers game.
“If anybody, the NCAA committee, the AP writers or the coaches, look at how we’ve been since we’ve been healthy, I don’t think there’s any question that we’re not one of the best teams in the country,” Barnes Arico said.
“I said that at the last press conference. I would be surprised if we aren’t one of the top 30 teams in the country. Golly, you guys got to see us tonight. You think there’s 30 better?”