St. John's excited about starting play in NCAA Tourney at home

St. John's Nadirah McKenith drives past Connecticut's Brianna

St. John's Nadirah McKenith drives past Connecticut's Brianna Banks during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Big East women's tournament in Hartford, Conn. (March 5, 2012) (Credit: AP)

There was a time this season when St. John's NCAA Tournament hopes were in jeopardy.

Mired in a four-game losing streak in late January, the Red Storm women's team was 10-10 and headed in the wrong direction. But the turnaround came just in time as St. John's (18-12) won eight of its final 10 games.

Leading scorer Shenneika Smith (16.7 points per game) attributed the turnaround to her team's ability to learn from the close losses. In addition to a six-point home loss to Connecticut, St. John's lost three games at the buzzer. "We figured out how to execute down the stretch," she said. "Not too many teams have been in our situation, where the beginning of the year [has] built us up for the Big East . . . So it was from experience and what we'd been through in December, coming into January."

Tenth-seeded St. John's will play No. 7 Dayton (27-2) in a first-round Bridgeport Region game Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Carnesecca Arena.

For Smith and point guard Nadirah McKenith, both seniors, it will be their fourth straight NCAA Tournament. Every postseason appearance has been special for the two, but this season has an added appeal: The Red Storm is hosting the first two rounds.

"It means a lot to finally be able to play here in our last NCAA Tournament," said McKenith, who's second on the team in scoring (12.9) and first in assists (5.3). "It will be so amazing to be able to play in front of our family and friends and our fan base."

Was there added pressure to make the tournament?

"I don't think it was any pressure," McKenith said. "I think it was something we wanted. We wanted to end our senior season with a bang and be able to play here at St. John's."

The Red Storm overcame the loss of senior guard Eugeneia McPherson, who suffered a torn ACL five games into the season. St. John's had adequate depth to endure the North Babylon graduate's absence as junior guard Briana Brown (8.8 points per game) and freshman wing Aliyyah Handford (9.2) had promising seasons. "Losing [McPherson] was a blow, but we knew someone had to step up or other players had to step up," St. John's coach Joe Tartamella said. "Briana Brown blew right through the door when we needed her."

Tartamella believes his team won't look past at-large selection Dayton of the Atlantic 10. "I told [the team] anyone we play is going to be really good," he said. "[Dayton is] balanced, they have four players scoring in double figures and they average seven three-pointers."

Quite a season already for Tartamella in his first year as St. John's coach: "I cannot ask for a better scenario, when you come into your job in your first year and you get to be in the NCAA Tournament and get to be at home."

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