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WBB: St. John's builds for conference run

Creighton guard Carli Tritz, left, walks off the

Creighton guard Carli Tritz, left, walks off the court past St. John's guards Nadirah McKenith (5) and Shenneika Smith (35) after St. John's defeated Creighton 69-67 in an NCAA tournament first-round women's college basketball game. (March 18, 2012) (Credit: AP )

If anyone is surprised or disappointed by St. John’s 6-6 start, don’t be. It’s familiar territory for the Red Storm. St. John’s was 7-5 after 12 games last season.

There are some differences between the two squads, as last season’s team didn’t have All-Big East forward Da’Shena Stevens the first 10 games of the season.

But the injury bug hit this year’s, too. Senior guard Eugeneia McPherson was lost for the year after tearing her ACL five games into the season. Junior forward Mary Nwachukwu missed the last two games with a leg injury.

The loss of an experienced guard the caliber of McPherson hasn’t been an easy thing to overcome. Two of the Red Storm’s losses have come in overtime, while a third setback was by three points. Their most recent loss came at the hands of Delaware. Elena Delle Donne hit a jumper with one second left in overtime to lift the Blue Hens to a 60-59 win.

First-year coach Joe Tartamella is still convinced his team has what it takes to thrive despite the tough losses.

"People forget about who we don't have. I didn't envision us without Eugenia [McPherson], and I didn't envision us tonight without Mary [Nwachukwu],” said Tartamella. “I'm so proud of these guys because we knew what we were trying to accomplish and what we still can.”

Conference play begins for St. John’s on Sunday with a trip to Rutgers. The Red Storm has beaten the Scarlet Knights four straight times. After that its home games against Seton Hall and Pittsburgh. Both are winnable games.

Said Tartamella: “We know who we are, and it took us a little bit to find that little niche, now it's just a question of execution. In three close games we can talk about a million things; we've left a lot of points at the rim, whether it be a layup or free throws, there's a lot of things that we have not finished that bring that game down to a possession or a shot.”

Finishing .500 in its non-conference schedule presents a huge challenge for the Red Storm. If the team can’t put together a strong conference, making the tournament for a fourth straight season could be difficult. Outside of a 66-54 win at Hartford, St. John’s suffered close losses to Texas, UCLA (OT) and Delaware, three teams that could make the tournament.

Added Tartamella: “I'm very happy of where we are, aside from wins and losses, where we are as a team heading into the conference, I feel pretty good about where we are as a group."

Leading his group is Shenneika Smith (16.6 pts, 8.8 reb) and Nadirah McKenith (13.9 ppg, 6.4 reb, 4.5 ast). Junior guards Briana Brown (9.1 ppg) and freshman guard Aliyyah Handford (6.7 ppg, 3.1 reb) have done an admirable job producing in the absence of McPherson.

Sophomore forward Amber Thompson and senior guard Keylantra Langley are also experienced players that will help the team when conference play begins.
 

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