St. John's reaches first Sweet 16

NORMAN, Okla. -- As the final buzzer sounded, there was silence throughout the Lloyd Noble Center except for a small pocket along the St. John's bench.

On the Red Storm's sideline, joy and jubilation reigned supreme. St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico hugged every Red Storm player she could find as they jumped around the court with excitement.

St. John's is headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time.

Overcoming a rowdy Sooners crowd, No. 3 seed St. John's defeated No. 6 seed Oklahoma, 74-70, in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Tuesday night. The Red Storm will take on Duke in the Sweet 16 of the Fresno Regional on Saturday (ESPN, 9 p.m.).

"This is one of the greatest moments in our program," Barnes Arico said. "Usually I am super professional, but tonight I wanted to celebrate with my team, because I'm so proud of what they've been able to accomplish."

In what amounted to a road game, the Red Storm knocked off the Sooners despite OU shooting 47.9 percent from the field. St. John's overwhelmed OU with its quickness and athleticism, scoring 21 points off 19 turnovers.

Point guard Nadirah McKenith was a driving force behind the Red Storm victory. After hitting the game winner to defeat Creighton on Sunday, the junior played a much better overall game on Tuesday. She finished with 13 points and seven assists with just one turnover after eight turnovers in the first round.

"I played a lot better tonight," she said. "I got my teammates involved first."

More importantly, she imposed her will on the game in the closing minutes. With the Red Storm nursing a 70-68 lead with 1:54 remaining, McKenith's smooth crossover dribble got her an easy layup. And with 20 seconds left and St. John's up by three, she hit one of two free throws to make it a two-possession game and essentially cement the victory.

"If she's not one of the best point guards in the country, I don't know who is," Barnes Arico said. "Anytime we need a basket, we want the ball in her hands. And she makes it happen."

It almost didn't happen after McKenith took a knee to the face with just over five minutes remaining in the game. She lay prone on the floor for several minutes before walking to the Red Storm bench.

"I was holding my breath," Barnes Arico said.

But McKenith refused to allow temporary pain to keep her from realizing her dream of a Sweet 16.

"I had to gather myself and get myself together," McKenith said. "I was going back in no matter what.

"Even if I was going to fall out, I was going back in."

Another key was the first half play of guard Eugeneia McPherson. She scored 17 of her team-high 21 points in the first 20 minutes. The Sooners shot 56.5 percent in the first half, yet trailed 39-36 at halftime largely because McPherson went 5 of 9 from the field and 5 of 5 from the free throw line to keep OU at bay.

"I told her before the game, 'You be aggressive, make them have to stop you,'" Barnes Arico said. "She had a phenomenal first half for us."

Things won't get any easier for St. John's as No. 2 seed Duke awaits with an Elite Eight berth on the line in Fresno.

But, for now, the Red Storm will sit back and enjoy what they've accomplished.

"It feels great to make history at St. John's," McKenith said. "I think we deserved to make it to the Sweet 16. We've worked so hard this season."