Footsteps flooded the narrow hallway leading to Kim Barnes Arico's office as members of the St. John's women's basketball team took turns filing in.
One by one they entered. Some stayed for 10 minutes. Others, only a few moments.
But the message for each player was the same.
"I just need to look them in the eye and say, 'We're on a mission right now,' " the Mastic Beach native said last week, as she sat behind her desk decorated with small floral arrangements. "'And as fast as we got to the top, is as fast as we can fall."
Six days after her team's Feb. 18 upset of then-No. 2 Connecticut in Storrs -- ending the Huskies' 99-game home winning streak -- and three days after the Red Storm (21-8) defeated West Virginia at home to win its sixth straight, the media circus still had not subsided. And in the midst of it, Barnes Arico was looking for ways to keep her kids grounded.
All of it -- the newspaper articles, the TV appearances, the radio interviews -- had the potential to derail everything the Red Storm had worked so hard to build this season. All the while, Barnes Arico drove her message home.
There still is more to accomplish, she kept repeating.
St. John's next test begins at 6 Sunday night at XL Center in Hartford, when the second-seeded Red Storm plays a Big East Tournament quarterfinal against No. 7 Louisville (22-8). A victory likely would set up a rematch against third-seeded UConn in a semifinal Monday at 8 p.m.
St. John's, winners of eight straight and 10 of 11, hasn't lost since Jan. 28 against regular-season champ Notre Dame. And despite a double-bye, Barnes Arico has every intention of keeping the momentum going.
"She's got this competitiveness in her," former Floyd girls basketball coach Tom Ferrigno said of Barnes Arico, named Big East coach of the year for the second time in six years and also named to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Women's National Coach of the Year watch list.
"I've been to a couple of her practices. She does a lot of magic with these kids," Ferrigno said.
Roots at Floyd
Long before she became the winningest coach in St. John's women's basketball history Feb. 12, she was a "go-getter" for the Colonials, said Ferrigno, a St. John's alum.
As a shooting guard, Barnes Arico set the single-season scoring record for Floyd, averaging 22 points as a senior in 1988. She also scored 37 points in a game, Ferrigno recalled, adding that the feat was accomplished before the introduction of the three-point line. In 2007, Barnes Arico was part of the inaugural class inducted into Floyd's Athletic Hall of Fame.
Ferrigno, 63, and his wife, Noreen, also a St. John's alum, have become a part of Barnes Arico's extended family, attending nearly all of the Red Storm's home games. In addition to emailing her two days before every contest, Ferrigno recently adopted a new superstition -- tapping a Barnes Arico bobblehead, which he keeps in his den, before games.
"So for [Sunday's] game, I'll be tapping five times. I'll keep going until I tell her the bobblehead magic dies."
Tough start to season
In 10 years as head coach at St. John's, Barnes Arico, with 173 wins in that time, admitted this has been her most difficult season. But even in the midst of player injuries and personal tragedies (which included the deaths of sophomore Mary Nwachukwu's father and Robert "Apache" Paschall, a well-known New York City girls high school basketball and AAU coach), she's managed to keep her team focused.
When star forward Da'Shena Stevens learned in August that she would be sidelined for four months because of a meniscus tear in her left knee, Barnes Arico offered comfort.
"Even when I was out, she always reminded me, 'We still need you,' " said Stevens, named the Big East women's basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year. "Every time something happened, she always found the right words to say."
When Barnes Arico accepted the Red Storm's head-coaching job in 2002, she inherited a program that finished 0-16 in the Big East the year before she arrived. Even now, she recalls the harsh criticisms of her team that first season. One women's basketball website -- the name of which she has long since forgotten -- wrote: "Worst of the worst programs in the country: St. John's University."
For years, she kept a printout of those words on the door to her office. It served as a reminder, and more so, motivation. And there's nothing Barnes Arico -- who ran the New York City Marathon in 4:49:42 in November -- likes more than a challenge.
Since then, she's become the first women's coach in St. John's history to have five 20-win seasons, and last season, she led the team to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 1984.
Not to mention that Barnes Arico, 41, is one of a handful of coaches to beat the Huskies on their home turf.
"I think we really shocked the world," said the married mother of three, who worked her way up the coaching ranks, from the high school level, to Division III, and later Division II Adelphi in 1999. "And I think we probably give a lot of hope to a lot of other teams."
Back from the dead
Never did the self-described "little girl from William Floyd" ever think this type of success would be possible. The program -- once considered "a graveyard for coaches," she admitted with a smile -- has become her second home.
"I owe everything to St. John's because they gave me a chance," said the coach, who led Stony Brook to the Division III NCAA Tournament as a freshman in 1989 before transferring to Montclair State.
Though now tucked away in a folder instead of on her door, Barnes Arico said the old printout from that basketball website still sticks with her.
The competitor in her refuses to let up.
"Every time I would walk out and I'd walk in, I'd see 'Worst of the worst programs in the country,' and it kind of really motivated me," Barnes Arico said. "It's something I'll keep forever."