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Aliyyah Handford's time to lead St. John's

St. John's Aliyyah Handford (3) scores on a

St. John's Aliyyah Handford (3) scores on a fast break against Connecticut during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, at Madison Square Garden. Photo Credit: AP / Jason DeCrow

Aliyyah Handford's numbers speak for themselves. The St. John's senior guard led the Big East in scoring last season with 19.3 points per game, averaged 6.5 rebounds and earned recognition as the conference's preseason player of the year.

But if coach Joe Tartamella has his way, Handford will learn to lead in a more vocal fashion and challenge the Red Storm to knock off defending conference champion DePaul and return to the NCAA Tournament. After losing all-time leading rebounder Amber Thompson, the emotional leader of last season's 23-11 WNIT team, he's hoping Handford and unanimous preseason all-Big East guard Danaejah Grant (17.1 points) can fill the leadership void.

"We've been grooming Aliyyah and Danaejah to take part in the leadership role," Tartamella said. "Aliyyah has been on the quiet side, but when you watch how hard she plays, it speaks for itself. When Danaejah speaks, she's profound. She knows how to push people's buttons."

That backcourt pair will serve as the foundation for what is expected to be another outstanding team under Tartamella, who enters his fourth year as head coach and his 14th season overall at St. John's.

Guard Aaliyah Lewis, who led in assists (4.4) last season, and forward Jade Walker (9.0 points, 4.7 rebounds) also are returning starters, and sophomore Imani Littleton is the leading candidate to replace Thompson in the frontcourt.

Freshman wing Akina Wellere might carve out some playing time with her outside shooting skill, and three-time Newsday All-Long Island forward Jordan Augustus out of St. Mary's in Manhasset might make an impact once she adjusts to the college game.

But it's clear the Red Storm gets its drive from Handford. "Winning practice every day for three years makes you pretty special," Tartamella said.

Reminded about Tartamella's desire for her to take charge on the floor vocally, Handford smiled and said, "I'm starting to do it. Around my friends, I talk a lot, but on the court, I'm starting to do it in practice more often because Coach asked me to do it."

Tartamella said his team is "primed and ready" for a run at a Big East title, adding:

"I feel they can be a special group."

St. John's women's basketball

Last season: 23-11, 11-7 Big East, WNIT

Players to watch

ALIYYAH HANDFORD: Handford's 655 points last season were the second highest in school history. She reached double-figures in points in 29 games, including 19 games with 20 or more, and she led the team in steals (2.2). Despite a .465 shooting percentage, Handford said she improved her shot over the summer.

DANAEJAH GRANT: Ranked fourth in Big East scoring (17.1) and averaged 19.7 in the WNIT to help the Red Storm reach the round of 16, including two of her five double-double performances for the season. In 56-51 win over Villanova, Grant had a dominant game with 25 points and 14 rebounds.

IMANI LITTLETON: The sophomore from San Diego averaged barely eight minutes per game in her first season, but dramatic improvement during the offseason has her primed for a breakout year. Littleton was a four-star recruit and 2,000-point scorer at The Bishop School and ranked No. 61 overall by

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