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St. John's shooting for top spot in Big East, sixth straight NCAA Tournament

St. John's head coach Joe Tartamella reacts to

St. John's head coach Joe Tartamella reacts to a call during the first half of a first-round game against Dayton in the women's NCAA college basketball tournament. (March 24, 2013) Credit: AP

In the two seasons since Joe Tartamella succeeded Kim Barnes Arico as coach of St. John's women's basketball team, it's a point of pride that he not only has continued the winning tradition he helped establish as an assistant but also has positioned the Red Storm to build on its string of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

"It's about creating the culture of winning," Tartamella said. "There aren't many programs in the country -- there's only 19 in the last five years -- which have gone to five straight NCAA Tournaments, which is pretty impressive."

The Red Storm, which was 23-11 last season, including 13-5 in Big East play, was voted second in the preseason poll of conference coaches behind DePaul, which won last year's regular-season and Big East Tournament titles over St. John's. Junior guards Aliyyah Handford (16.7 points per game, 5.1 rebounds) and Danaejah Grant (10.9, 5.0) were named to the preseason All-Big East team, and senior forward Amber Thompson (7.8, 9.2) was honorable mention.

"Aliyyah is the quintessential electric guard, athletic in all aspects," Tartamella said. "Her ability in transition is second to none in the country, and her defensive prowess now has made her a complete player. She doesn't shy away from the big moment. I expect a big year from her. She makes us go."

Handford, who scored 27 points in St. John's first-round NCAA upset of Southern California before a second-round loss on Tennessee's home court, knows she must be a leader this season, and she's excited for the challenge.

"We're going to be a great team," Handford said. "We're just trying to get to that No. 1 spot . We're going to work hard and pick up where we left off last season."

Tartamella brought in an excellent recruiting class of four freshmen and two transfers, and Handford likes what she saw during the Red Storm's summer trip to Europe.

"I think it's going to be a game-changer with the people that are coming in and the people who have been here," Handford said. "We've got a lot of big people now."

Crystal Simmons, a 5-10 guard from Madrid, Spain, has caught everyone's eye.

"I like her motor," Tartamella said. "She's a great defender, and that is important to how we play. She also gives us the ability to shoot the three."

Ranging far and wide in recruiting, Tartamella also added 6-3 forward Imani Littleton from San Diego, 6-foot forward Tonoia Wade from Bloomington, Minnesota, and highly recruited 5-7 Philadelphia point guard Tamesha Alexander, who will back up Aaliyah Lewis. Transfer forwards, 6-3 Kyra Dunn and 6-4 Selina Archer provide depth to go with the 6-2 Thompson and 6-1 soph Jade Walker.

"We're bigger than we've ever been," Tartamella said. "So we've got more depth up front than I've ever had."

New York Sports