December 18, 2023 

St. John’s opens conference play with confidence-boosting win at MSG

Red Storm show toughness down the stretch to clinch conference win

NEW YORK — The bright lights of Madison Square Garden (MSG) shone onto an early season BIG EAST match-up on Saturday evening, wrapping up a holiday triple-header that featured two men’s college basketball games earlier that afternoon. In this nightcap, St. John’s women’s basketball team ground out a 51-46 victory over Villanova, snapping a nine-game losing streak against the conference foe.

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Following a defensive slugfest of a first half, the Wildcats took a 22-19 lead into the locker room. After the break, the teams traded baskets and runs, notching 15 points a piece in the third quarter. In the end, the Red Storm were able to put this one away by making crucial shots and coming up with big defensive stops down the stretch. When the final buzzer sounded, the St. John’s bench cleared onto the court to celebrate a five-point victory.

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“To finish the way that we did…I think it’s a real testament to the grit that they’ve had, resilience they’ve had in a year that’s been frustrating at times,” said St. John’s head coach Joe Tartamella. “And I think also we’re starting to see some of the frustration turn into execution and to be able to win a game like this where it’s nip and tuck throughout.”

“And so I’m just really pleased with our group and to be at Madison Square Garden and do it in [the] way that we did with the opportunity to be here which is to me again, second to none when you talk about basketball in New York City.”

With the victory, the Red Storm evened up their season record to 6-6, and improved to 1-0 in conference play. Following an at times uninspiring non-conference schedule which included an 0-3 showing at the Discover Puerto Rico Classic over Thanksgiving, the win gives St. John’s some much-needed momentum and confidence heading into Wednesday’s non-conference finale against Yale.

St. John’s veterans led the way

This game was characterized by subpar shooting from both teams, especially in the first half, which perhaps could be attributed to the nerves of playing at the “world’s most famous arena.” Graduate student Jillian Archer, for one, was not intimidated by playing her first-ever game on the historic court. The 6’2 forward contributed 15 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks on the night, including a key block with 26 seconds remaining in the game and St. John’s up just two, 48-46.

The block deflated the Wildcats, who wouldn’t score for the remainder of the game and were forced to send St. John’s to the free throw line to ice the game. Archer seemed to do just about everything for St. John’s on both ends of the court, cleaning up the boards for second-chance shots and playing lockdown defense that stifled Villanova’s top scorers.

“It was an amazing opportunity…being able to play with my team here was incredible,” Archer said about playing at MSG.

Another Red Storm vet, redshirt senior guard Unique Drake, also stepped up big for her squad in the win. The team’s leading scorer this season also led the way against Villanova with 16 points on the night. Despite uncharacteristically poor shooting (3-for-12) from behind the arc, she seemed to hit a big three when it mattered the most, and found other ways to steady her squad during her 38 minutes of play.

Coach Tartamella emphasized that both Archer and Drake set the tone for the rest of the roster, and he thought they stepped into those roles at key moments down the stretch for his team.

“Today I thought Jill did what she needed to do. She was not only tough on herself, she was tough on her teammates,” Tartamella said. “She was holding people accountable and she held herself accountable, and that’s the difference. Unique has always been Unique….Not as vocal as Jill, but Unique stayed the course…But both of them have to not only lead by example, but they also have to lead in a way that they can hold themselves accountable and their teammates at the same time.”

Behind Archer and Drake’s poised leadership, St. John’s defense never allowed Villanova to find a rhythm on the offensive end. Wildcats guard Lucy Olsen, who averages 23.5 points per game, was held to just nine points on 2-15 shooting. Junior forward Christina Dalce was held to just two points and found herself in foul trouble at various key points in the game.

“Credit to [St. John’s],” said Villanova head coach Denise Dillon. “I think their defensive scheme, strategy of having someone tied [to Lucy] during the whole game was tremendous.”

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Who will lead the Wildcats?

Sitting just behind the Villanova bench on Sunday night, wearing street clothes, was the program’s all-time leading scorer Maddy Siegrist. When she graduated last spring and headed to the WNBA, out walked 41% of the WIldcats’ scoring last season, an average of 29.2 points per game.

“As I walked off [the court] I saw their former greatest of all time and it’s like a ‘finally’ moment…finally we got one, but you would hope so, right? We’ve had a number of these go the other way,” Tartamella said.

During her tenure at Villanova, Siegrist and the Wildcats had a perfect record against the Red Storm, winning the last nine games of the series. Three of those nine wins came in overtime, and it was Villanova that was able to seal the deal in the end. It was another close one on Saturday, which has become a troubling pattern. The 6-5 Wildcats have lost four of five games so far this month, each by six or fewer points.

“I guess the only part is you’re hopeful just with the repetition of it, and now the experience this group’s getting in close games…unfortunately, we’re not getting over that hump. We’re continuing to falter down the stretch with a number of close ones.”

When Siegrist was in uniform for the Wildcats, she was often the closer. She would go on a run in a key moment to change the momentum of the game or would find a way to keep her teammates focused during tough stretches. She was the first one to speak up in huddles and led both by example and with a quiet determination. Without her consistent scoring and steadying presence on the court, Villanova seemed to lack the required leadership to embrace the moment down the stretch.

Whether it’s senior guard Bella Runyan, leading scorer Lucy Olsen or athletic post Christina Dalce, someone will need to step up and fill the leadership void left by Siegrist’s graduation. It’s unclear who that will be and, with conference play underway, it’s becoming more and more urgent that a leader does emerge.

Villanova will resume conference play on Dec. 30 against Xavier. On the same day, St. John’s will travel to Omaha to face off against an experienced Creighton team that currently sits at No. 21 in the AP Poll.

“Everybody in the BIG EAST is very good, the competition is great,” Jillian Archer said postgame on Saturday. “So really just every single game [we’re] really just trying to stay focused on what we need to do to be successful.”

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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