Big East WBB Tourney: Is There One More Hurrah Left For St. John's Sr. Floor General Aaliyah Lewis?
By Andy Lipton
NEW YORK -- St. John’s Red Storm point guard, 5’5” senior Aaliyah Lewis, a star recruited locally from Staten Island, has had winning season after winning season in her four years with the team.
Three 23-win seasons her first three years. And this year’s team is on the cusp of a 20-win season, with a record of 19-10.
Lewis’ Red Storm teams have had their seasons in the sun.
The St. John’s combined record this season and the previous three is 88-42, including finishes with two NCAA appearances and one Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) appearance from 2014-16
Lewis’ St. John’s teams have experienced exciting and memory-lasting victories:
▪ A win in December 2013 with three seconds remaining on a layup by Aliyyah Handford as she drove to the hoop to beat 24th ranked Texas A&M in Madison Square Garden in the Maggie Dixon Classic.
▪ A double-overtime win against Creighton in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament in 2014.
▪ A victory against the University of Southern California (USC) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with less than a second to go on an outside shot from deep in the right corner by senior Briana Brown.
The Red Storm star took a pass from fellow senior Keylantra Langley, who was on the wing, who had received a pass from fellow senior Eugeneia McPherson, who was near the top of the key.
McPherson to Langley to Brown: Three seniors who achieved their final win of the season on that play.
▪ Wining two games to advance to the quarterfinals of the WNIT in 2015.
▪ Hoisting last year’s Big East Tournament Championship trophy, defeating Creighton in the championship game after beating DePaul in the semi-finals, after having lost to DePaul the previous six times they had played.
Although Lewis has been the starting point guard since her sophomore season, the Red Storm’s prolific scorers the last two years, Aliyyah Handford and Danaejah Grant, both seniors last year, overshadowed Lewis.
This year has been Lewis’ season in the sun in becoming the leader of the Red Storm team.
Lewis directs the Red Storm offense from her point guard position. She has averaged over six assists a game this year, leading the Big East in this category by a wide margin and is fifth in the Big East in assist to turnover ratio at 2.3.
Lewis has averaged over 10 points a game, the first time she has averaged double figures in scoring in her Red Storm career.
She is fast, with quick hands and feet.
On fast breaks, in transition, and after Red Storm steals, Lewis flies down the court, with energy, speed, and quickness, and if confronted with players in her way, then curving around these obstacles, as she can cross her dribble over from one hand to the other and then back to the other hand on the way to the hoop, and when near the hoop, lofting floating layups over much taller opponents off the backboard.
Racing down the court with the dribble, Lewis reminds me of a car being driven in a racing car simulator game you play in an arcade, going full speed down the straightaway and around obstacles and curves while staying on the road.
Any on-court collisions Lewis incurs are typically the fault of her opponents as they foul her on her drives.
This season Lewis has drawn more fouls than any of her teammates, going to the charity stripe 149 times. Nobody in the Top 15 in free-throw percentage in the Big East has gone to the foul line more times than Lewis.
She leads the team in steals with 38.
Lewis can use her 5’5” height and quickness to her advantage on defense. She can get and stay low and close on taller players trying to dribble up the court, making it tough for them to do so. In her last regular season game against Seton Hall, Lewis was judicious with her on-ball defense to avoid foul trouble. Coach Tartamella needs her in the game, not on the bench.
He has relied heavily on Lewis, playing her an average of 37 minutes a game this year, the most for a Big East player, and over 35 minutes the previous two seasons.
Lewis is tireless, never stops playing hard, unflappable, and always positive on the court. And she is quietly confident that she can compete against anyone.
You can tell from looking at her face and body language on the court, that she flat out loves to play and compete.
Lewis would like to continue playing ball after she graduates before she puts her degree in sports management to use.
The Red Storm ended their regular season on February 26 with a win against Seton Hall at Carnesecca Arena on their home campus.
It was Senior Day in which players Lewis, Jade Walker, Sandra Udobi, and Kendyl Nunn, and graduate assistant Shanise Bulton, and their families were honored with Lewis playing a big part to help the Red Storm beat their nearby conference rival from New Jersey.
The Big East Tournament starts this Saturday, March 4 at the Al McGuire Center on the campus of Marquette University with St. John’s opening against Villanova.
Winning the Big East Tournament will guarantee the Red Storm a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Making it to the championship game in the Big East Tournament might put them in there as well, depending on whom they beat in the previous rounds.
But that will be a very close call.
Through February 25, St. John’s was ranked number 68 in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which measures and ranks teams based on overall record and strength of schedule. Only 64 teams make it to the women’s NCAA Tournament.
Given its record and current RPI, St. John’s should almost be a lock to make the WNIT, regardless of how they do in the conference tourney in Milwaukee.
St. John’s finds itself in familiar territory entering the tournament.
They are fifth in their conference with a Big East record of 11-7, the same record as the previous two seasons in which they were fourth in the standings.
Nationally-ranked DePaul, Creighton, and Marquette are the number one, two, and three seeds, with the Wildcats whom they will face at No. 4.
Both DePaul and Creighton are ranked in the Top 25 by the USA TODAY Coaches Poll.
Losing starting center Imani Littleton to a season-ending knee injury a few games ago, makes winning the Big East Championship a tough task for the Red Storm, who were swept by Villanova during the season.
One that is doable, albeit closer to a long shot.
This season St. John’s has lost both games to each of Creighton, DePaul, and the Wildcats.
In one of the two games against each of DePaul, Creighton, and Villanova, St. John’s lost by narrow differentials. And the Red Storm beat Marquette in their two games.
But Littleton played in seven out of the eight games against these four teams.
Tough man-to-man defense has long been a trademark of Red Storm teams.
This season, among all the Big East teams, the Red Storm’s opponents averaged the lowest amount of points per game, at 55.5, and the lowest field goal percentage at 36.7%.
A rock-solid defender, junior guard Crystal Simmons comes off the bench to tighten up the defense, and often adds a spark a she dives on the floor for loose balls and gets steals.
The Red Storm defense is capable of creating transition opportunities by forcing turnovers and getting steals, as well as from making their opponents miss shots.
In transition Tartamella’s team can move the ball up the court quickly resulting in good scoring opportunities, which if capitalized upon, can also change the momentum of a game.
They need to create these opportunities in order to have a chance to win the Big East Tournament. And they need to rebound.
Walker, junior forward/center Maya Singleton, freshman guard Alisha Kebbe and reserve sophomore forward Jordan Agustus can hold their own on the boards. But without Littleton, keeping it up for three games in three days could be tough due to fatigue. Or foul trouble.
In the Red Storm’s half-court offense, senior forward Jade Walker, the team’s leading scorer, averaging 14.2 points a game on a field goal percentage of 47.7%, can shoot from medium range, as well as use her size to get deep inside position and then turn and score right near the basket.
Walker has the softest touch and smoothest release on an outside shot from six to 13 feet you will ever see in any player – man or woman. For the Red Storm these last three seasons, Jade has been the New Red.
Sophomore guard/forward Akina Wellere is the team’s best long distance shooter and league’s most accurate 3-point shooter at 47.7%.
However, she averages only a little more than three 3-pointers a game.
Nevertheless, her overall shooting percentage is solid at 43.9%.
Kebbe has started to find her mark offensively. In her last three games, she shot 3 for 6, 4 for 7, and 5 for 9.
Freshmen guard, Andrayah Adams has only averaged 11.5minutes per game this year, but her best game of the season came against Marquette at the Al McGuire Center.
The hoops on that court may be to her liking as she shot 9 for 15 from the field, including 6 out of 9 from the three-point line.
One thing is for sure though.
As her college basketball career enters its final weeks, Aaliyah Lewis will keep playing hard and with an unrelenting love of the game, right down to the final buzzer. And I expect her teammates to be inspired by her example.