Handford's Exploits Give St. John's Landmark Triumph
NEW YORK – Like much of the afternoon -- for that matter, the entire season -- the ball found the hands of St. John’s sophomore guard Aliyyah Handford during the final five seconds of a tied game against 24th-ranked Texas A&M.
Handford took a pass from senior Eugeneia McPherson and took two steps to her right and then raced down the lane for a layup with 2.8 seconds remaining that proved to be the difference as the Red Storm edged the Aggies, 72-70, in a thrilling opening game of the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon. In the second game, top-ranked Connecticut crunched California, 80-47.
Her heroics additionally resulted in Handford being named Big East player of the week on Monday.
The Aggies had an opportunity to send the game into overtime, but the final shot bounced off the backboard and fell to the floor. In a game with more late drama than an episode of “Scandal”, Handford’s basket ended a wild final 45 seconds that featured a pair of ties at 68 and 70. With the win, St. John’s (6-4 overall) ended a three-game losing streak, defeated a SEC school for the first time since beating Kentucky, 74-64, in 1991 and improved its all-time record at MSG to 7-3 overall. It was also the first win for St. John’s in the Maggie Dixon Classic in three tries.
“We worked together as a team at the end of the game,” Handford said of the decisive basket. “Eugeneia did a great job handling the ball and running the clock down. We saw a play that we felt that would work. We tried it and it turned out good for us. We played as a team and once we stopped what they wanted to do, we played aggressively.”
Handford, a 5 foot, 9 inch guard, electrified the Garden with a special 27-point performance that has become the norm during a memorable sophomore season. For Handford this was certainly a Broadway-worth effort that left fans begging for a curtain call. Weaving her slim, athletic and strong frame through the Aggie defense for tough layups, Handford was 11-for-18 from the field. Handford took scoring chores into her hands early and often as she hit for eight of St. John’s first 10 points of the contest to help the Red Storm erase a quick 7-2 deficit.
Ultimately, Handford scored 18 of her points in the opening 20 minutes to help the Red Storm grab a 33-30 halftime lead. It was the fifth time this season Handford finished with at least 20 or more points and eighth time with at least 18 points.
“It feels good to get this win,” Handford said. “It’s a big win against a ranked team and we feel good about it. We just want to build off of this performance, keep growing as a team and get better with each game we play.”
Handford had plenty of help from McPherson, who playing in her third game this year, scored 14 points and registered a career-high seven assists. Twelve of those points were scored in the second half including a big 3-pointer that gave St. John’s a 64-60 advantage with 2:32 remaining as the shot clock buzzer sounded.
Texas A&M was led in scoring by Karla Gilbert’s 15 points. Courtney Williams battled foul trouble to finish with 14 points. Tori Scott also enjoyed an impactful performance for the Aggies with nine points and four steals.
After averaging 9.2 points last year as a freshman and being selected to the Big East All-Freshman team while learning the ropes from a senior-laden team that qualified for the NCAA tournament, Handford knew that she would be counted on entering this year for many things from scoring to leadership. She’s off to a terrific start as she’s an early candidate for the Big East Player of the Year award. Handford is developing into one of the elite guards in America. The scary part is she’s just getting warmed up.
This season, the 20.9 point per game scoring and 7.5 rebound per game average through 10 games has been a pleasant surprise for Handford, who is on pace to break Sue Bretthauer’s 38-year St. John’s school record of most points (510) scored by a sophomore. Handford has 209 points through 10 games. While that is a potentially sweet accomplishment, Handford is more pleased with the other facets of her game that have improved.
“I didn’t expect to score like this,” Handford said. “I am driving to the basket, being more aggressive and smarter this year. I am not doing things that would take me out the game and get me frustrated. This season, I have stayed focused and just continued to play through everything. Also, I have focused on helping my teammates out more.”
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