Good morning, from the new shiny Madison Square Garden, where St. John's and Texas A&M will be starting in about ten minutes. The scoreboard is very, very shiny. Lots of things are shiny. The Red Storm's red warmups look especially bright under the lights. Selina Archer and Danaejah Grant are dressed for the first time. (Look, autocorrect, if the Selina spelling is good enough for Catwoman, it's good enough for our center. Put your sunglasses on and deal with it.)
Unsurprisingly, the attendance is sparse so far. I can't say I'm surprised. Neither of these teams is going to draw for 11AM, and UConn fans aren't going to come in the morning for two teams they don't care about.
Lots of Liberty giveaways in the seats. Nice cross-marketing.
What did I do in my last life to end up next to an Ohio State fan in a game that involves no players from the state of Ohio? There are maybe twenty people in the damn section and I've got a Buckeye fan on my right hip. Why me? Did I make a practice of kicking puppies last time around? (I really don't like Ohio State. Long story. Not for public consumption.)
My team is so far away. I'm not used to this. :(
Not the usual Garden announcer either. Now how can I be sure I'm pronouncing Danaejah properly?
At halftime, the Johnnies are up three, 33-30. Aliyyah Handford is back on form, with 18 of the 33. Texas A&M has had flashes of excellent passing, but the Red Storm's defense has held firm down low, firmer than I was expecting.
Beautiful anthem, as is tradition. I shouldn't be surprised that Texas A&M has excellent flag etiquette, with their strong military influence. St. John's went with the twee arm-linking.
I think the people around us are miffed that we're cheering. In case y'all didn't notice, we're wearing St. John's gear, we're going to be a little passionate about this game. We'll be quieter for UConn and Cal (though not as quiet as all that; your intrepid blogger is quite fond of those Golden Bears, and your dashing reporter has family ties to the University of California at Berkeley).
OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD THANK YOU LORD BABY JESUS AND ALIYYAH HANDFORD. I'm trying hard to be coherent about this, but it's hard. Texas A&M may not be as good as they usually are, but that's still a name, and beating a name means a lot in women's basketball.
Texas A&M had spurts of excellent play. I take nothing away from the Aggies. They were fast, aggressive, and tough. They played the passing lanes well and played very tough defense. Gary Blair's one of the best in the business, and no one exploits the fine print of the rules of basketball better than he does. Love to watch him work- glad we could beat him.
Curtyce Knox was incredibly fast- had a couple of breaks for steals, though one of those may have belonged to Tori Scott. Whoever it was, she was moving too fast for me to get more than an impression of a number starting with 1 and long hair. Tori Scott gave good minutes off the bench- she got the second half start to protect Courtney Williams, who had three fouls. She was very quick, especially on defense. Tavarsha Scott-Williams did well cutting along the baseline for baskets- I think she was one of their better offensive rebounders. They had a few bench players in and out, but Scott, Scott-Williams, and Knox gave them the bulk of their reserve play.
Karla Gilbert was much more of a factor in the second half than the first- the Aggies were able to adjust to the Red Storm's lack of height and go high to the big girl. They seemed more focused on working with the speed of their forwards than taking advantage of the height advantage, though. I think that backfired in the end- had they been able to draw more fouls on St. John's, especially the way the game was called in the third quarter, they might have forced Joe Tartamella to make different personal decisions in the final five minutes. Achiri Ade seemed to be more of a defensive player than an offensive player- they were very careful to manage her fouls, especially in the latter stages of the game. Courtney Walker was harassed all day and really couldn't get into a rhythm, though she made up for it a little bit at the free throw line in the second half (but we'll get to that later). Courtney Williams started the second half on the bench, as mentioned above, because of the foul issues. For all the points she put up, she really didn't leave much of an impression. Jordan Jones drew what we felt was an utterly nonsensical charge on Eugeneia McPherson and also made a superb hustle play in the second half to save an Aggie possession.
From where we were, and from my admitted lack of familiarity with this incarnation of Texas A&M, a lot of the players looked very similar- tall, lanky, athletic forwards who crashed the boards hard and harassed the passing lanes. So I apologize for not being able to differentiate them as well as I would have liked. They're a good team that's going to make plenty of noise in the SEC.
Mallory Jones played briefly in the first half, just long enough for us to be sure that Joe had completely lost his mind. At which point Texas A&M went on a 5-0 run and Mallory went back to the bench. (I like her taste in music, and she seems like a nice kid, but she's mostly been fail this year.) Jade Walker gave good defensive minutes, especially in the first half- she held her ground a lot more strongly than I would have expected from a freshman in her first Garden game. Keylantra Langley came off the bench in this one, and as usual, her field goals both came when the shot clock was about to expire (though she airballed a three in the same situation; apparently Key only gets so much of the magic per game). Selina Archer saw her first minutes in red and white, and while she's got height, I wasn't pleased with her lack of hustle on the boards. In the Big East, it's not enough to just be tall. Danaejah Grant put up a couple of jumpers from the free throw line and showed flashes of what we've all been looking forward to from her, but also showed that this was her first game for St. John's with really bad passing. Perhaps having the person who's in her first game take the inbounds is a bad plan, Joe. Aaliyah Lewis was pesky on defense, but didn't play much past the first half. This was not the kind of game where having a tiny guard pestering the ballhandler was going to be very effective. She was good at what she could do, but she was too much of a liability to use much.
Briana Brown drew some unenviable assignments (there was a point where the "5-8" guard was attempting to defend 6-5 Karla Gilbert, and this is not a good idea. She didn't play a lot, because she was off her game (I'm thinking of a specific floater). Points to Joe for having the guts to not go with the starter, especially when that starter is a senior captain. Sandra Udobi got the start, likely in an attempt to counter Texas A&M's size, and she played well, especially in the first half. I suspect her knee started acting up, which was why her minutes were reduced, but she made some good defensive stands down low and hit a few midrange jumpers. Eugeneia McPherson played a capable point guard- not inspired, because she didn't seem to know how to react when the play broke down, but she can run plays with the best of them. She came up with clutch threes and free throws in the second half to help seal the game. Amber Thompson didn't have much of an offensive impact, but she played excellent straight-up, physical defense down low. She rebounded well and made a huge impact in the paint. And then there was Aliyyah Handford, and a week off did wonders for her explosiveness. Her first step was quick as a blink, and she even hit a couple of jumpers from the free throw line, which is one of the signs of the apocalypse, just after the four horsemen riding out, but before the angel with the flaming sword. She came up big when we needed her, most obviously at the very end.
The refs irked me greatly when the foul differential was 7-0 sometime early in the second half. Fortunately, they got over it in a hurry. I would have liked to see the zero tolerance actually be zero tolerance, but at the same time, St. John's got away with a couple of fouls, so I'll take it.
By the end of the game, the people around us might have thought we were crazy, but they were also getting into the game. We did try to lead the cheerleaders, as we usually do, but sixteen rows above the court level, it's a bit difficult to do so. At least we got our section cheering.
I really thought we were going to blow the endgame somehow. Joe's not great in endgame situations, but I'll give him credit for making excellent personnel decisions today. He played the hot hands, rotated defensive and offensive players, and generally worked the chess game exceptionally well against one of the best in the business.
This is the kind of game where we fold, usually. Today? Today we did not fold. We bent but did not break, and I love this team so much. So, so much. So proud of them.