CHICAGO — The fourth-seeded St. John’s (22-9) women’s basketball team advanced to the title game of the Big East tournament with a 75-66 semifinal win Monday night over host and top-seeded DePaul.
The Red Storm plays for the championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament when they go up against No. 7 Creighton (17-16) Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Bluejays have beaten Providence, No. 2 Villanova and No. 3 Seton Hall in the last three days. Eighteenth-ranked DePaul, which beat St. John’s twice during the regular season, falls to 25-8.
St. John’s was powered by its dynamic duo of Aliyyah Handford (23 points) and Danaejah Grant (22 points, 10 rebounds).
Handford, the program’s all-time leading scorer, netted 18 of her points in the second half, 14 in the fourth quarter. The senior also registered four assists and three steals, tying her with Nadirah McKenith for second place on the school’s all-time steals list (267).
“I was just in the moment, like something just clicked and I just went off,” said Handford of her fourth-quarter offensive outburst. “I’m speechless right now. I’m just happy at the moment.”
Grant, the leading scorer in the conference this season had her team-high fifth double-double of the season, including 15 of her points and seven of her rebounds in the final 20 minutes.
Aaliyah Lewis added 14 and Akina Wellere chipped in 12.
As a team, the Red Storm set season-highs for both three-pointers made and three-pointers attempted, sinking 7 of 16.
On the defensive end of the floor, the Red Storm limited the high-flying DePaul offense to its third-lowest output of the season, holding the Blue Demons well below their Big East-leading scoring average of 81.4 heading into the contest.
Ashton Millender hit a three-pointer to give the Blue Demons a 54-49 fourth quarter lead, but Grant and Handford combined to score five in a row. That turned into an 11-0 Red Storm surge for a 60-54 lead with less than four minutes left. St. John’s built its lead to 70-59 on a Handford drive with just over a minute to go.
“St. John’s plays really good defense,” said DePaul coach Doug Bruno about his team being ahead by 10 points (45-35) in the third quarter and falling behind by 11 near the end of the fourth quarter. “When you’re being defended that well, you have to be patient to wait out the possession. We constantly tried to jam it in there. We have a system that knows how to slice and dice good defensive teams. But you have to keep the ball moving and be patient. St. John’s is really good and very deserving to be in the NCAA Tournament.”
Millender led DePaul with 15 points and Chanise Jenkins scored 14.
Both teams will find out where the NCAA will place them when the tournament pairings are announced on next Monday’s selection show.