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St. John’s women’s basketball prepare for tough Garden test against Villanova

The Red Storm face a top-50 Wildcats team in their first game at Madison Square Garden in more than four years

St. John’s University Athletics

Joe Tartamella knows these opportunities don’t come often.

The St. John’s women’s basketball team will be playing under the bright lights inside Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, their first game inside “The Mecca” in more than four years.

“I’ve been able to coach in there for 10 or 11 games, but we don’t get a ton of time in there,” said Joe Tartamella after Sunday’s win over Rhode Island, “The opportunity to play there will never get turned down because of what it means to our program, our university and the game of basketball especially in New York and New York City. It’s a place we can call home which no one else can on the college level, I’ll never take for granted as a coach.”

The Big East has predicated itself on playing men’s basketball games inside large NBA-sized arenas throughout its entire history, but that professional treatment hasn’t been reciprocated for their women’s basketball teams. St. John’s has been partly guilty of this, but they’re correcting this in recent years. The Red Storm faced UConn at UBS Arena last season, and they’re scheduled to face each other inside the Islanders’ home building again this season. Now, they’re serving as the third and final act to a three-game doubleheader that also features the St. John’s men’s basketball team.

It’s been a difficult start for a St. John’s team that won an NCAA tournament game just last season. With a record of 5-6, they have losses to Jackson State, Fairfield, and Monmouth.

A specialty of Tartamella teams has been slow tempos and stout defense, and last year’s squad survived many close calls thanks to clutch shotmaking by Jayla Everett and Kadaja Bailey. With both of them gone, the Red Storm have struggled to find their rhythm offensively. Unique Drake (19.5 ppg) and Jillian Archer (10.9 ppg) are playing admirably, but the lack of experience and reliable offensive playmaking surrounding those two has spurred this tepid start.

A gritty 55-44 win over Rhode Island on Sunday afternoon was a nice step in the right direction. Unique Drake was Unique Drake, hitting four threes as part of a 16-point performance, but the Red Storm got meaningful contributions from several players. Former four-star recruit Skye Owen recorded a career-high 14 points off the bench, UMass transfer Ber’Nyah Mayo scored in double figures for the first time in four games, and Phoenix Gedeon pulled down 10 rebounds and scored all six of her points in the final quarter.

“I was really pleased with how we were able to finish the game playing the way we did in the fourth quarter, doing enough for us to make and create good shots and be able to get stops.” Tartamella said in Sunday’s postgame press conference, “As I said to our team before the game, this was a pivotal moment for us to show and validate some of the things we are capable of. It was a great win for us.”

A win over Villanova on Saturday night can change the tenor of this season in a heartbeat. The Wildcats are fresh off a Sweet Sixteen bid and are well-positioned to make their third straight NCAA tournament appearance this year. While they’re 6-4, Villanova is currently ranked 44th in NET rankings, fifth among Big East teams. It’s impossible to replicate the impact of a program legend like Maddie Siegrist, but they have immediately found another star with All-American potential. Junior guard Lucy Olsen has scorched nets through 10 games this season, averaging 24.9 points per game, third-most in the country.

The Wildcats have a clear edge in a matchup like this, but St. John’s has won three of their last four Big East openers and they hold an all-time record of 9-7 inside the World’s Most Famous Arena.