St. John's clamps down on defense in second half to advance

STANFORD, Calif. -- St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico hardly took any time to savor another NCAA tournament opening-round victory.

Back in the locker room moments after her Red Storm defeated Texas Tech 55-50 on Saturday, she was already trying to get players to focus on a second-round matchup against top-seeded Stanford.

"It's one game," Barnes Arico said. "Why can't St. John's be the Cinderella this year?"

They'll get their chance.

Nadirah McKenith scored 14 points and Eugeneia McPherson had 10 points to lead St. John's over Texas Tech in the opener, moving into the second round of the tournament two years in a row. The Red Storm (22-10) held the Lady Raiders to only one basket for more than eight minutes in the second half, a dominating defensive effort that helped them pull away.

"I think we picked up the momentum," said Da'Shena Stevens, who had 10 rebounds and three points for St. John's. "I think we just started to focus on defense and really clamp down."

Casey Morris scored 10 points and Kierra Mallard had nine points and 10 rebounds in a disappointing early exit for Texas Tech (22-11). The Lady Raiders went 4 for 22 to start the final half, finishing with a season-low 20 points after the break.

"Whether it was our offense's inability to make shots or St. John's defense, you've got to be able to make shots in March," Texas Tech coach Kelly Curry said. "And we missed a whole bunch."

The Red Storm started slow but closed fast.

They had Texas Tech in an offensive funk to begin the second half, mixing zone defenses with a swarming full-court press that led to easy offense. St. John's had an 8-0 run and another 13-2 spurt late, taking a 50-38 lead with more than five minutes remaining.

In what both coaches described before the game as the best 8-9 matchup in the tournament, it never lived up to the hype.

There were all the signs of opening jitters and overall sloppiness when the game started: passes that landed in the stands, shot-clock violations and shots that missed the rim altogether. The Lady Raiders went out to a six-point lead in the first half but, overall, looked more like a program playing its first NCAA tournament game since 2005 than one that knocked off Brittney Griner and Baylor this season.

"We had butterflies," Morris said, candidly.

Barnes Arico also switched to a full-court press, and the move showed immediate results. The Red Storm scored nine straight points capped by Amanda Burakoski's 3-pointer that put them ahead 17-14.

The teams traded baskets from there through the rest of a bumpy opening half that had a combined 21 turnovers. St. John's sprinted out again in the second half, scoring the first eight points to take a 36-30 lead.

They held the Lady Raiders to only one field goal -- a jumper by Chynna Brown -- for more than eight minutes and needed just enough offense to pull away late.

Now they'll get a chance Monday against Stanford at Maples Pavilion, where the Cardinal are riding a 62-game home winning streak after beating UC-Davis 86-59 in their opener. Stanford is the heavy favorite to make the Final Four for the fourth straight season.

After falling to Florida State in the second round a season ago on the Seminoles' home floor, St. John's is preparing to play another opponent -- and a much tougher one, by far -- on its court again this season.

St. John's got a taste of what to expect in the final seconds of its win over the Lady Raiders, when the video board at Maples Pavilion showed Stanford warming up in a back hallway. With the Red Storm still playing, the crowd erupted.

"You mean those cheers weren't for us?" Barnes Arico said, chuckling. "When they started cheering, I figured they had entered the building. I'm not that naive. My players, they thought it was for them. So I'm going to let them go with that."